Part of the National Security Agency (NSA) program that was brought to light by whistleblower Edward Snowden has been ruled illegal by a New York federal appeals court. The court issued an in-depth court ruling of 97 pages in which the judges said it’s illegal for the intelligence agency to collect the phone records of Americans in bulk.
NSA bulk collection not allowed
Charlie Savage of The New York Times reports that the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the provision of the Patriot Act which allows the FBI to collect business records investigators believe to be related to a counterterrorism case cannot be applied to the collection of American’s phone records in bulk. Section 215 is set to expire next month unless lawmakers vote to extend it.
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This marks the first time a court at the higher level of the regular judicial system has looked at the program. A national security court has secretly approved the bulk collection of phone records multiple times since 2006. The ruling also overturns a December 2013 decision which deemed the program legal.
In the ruling, the three-judge panel wrote that even though it currently deems the bulk collection of phone records illegal, Congress can decide to authorize a broad program including it “and to do so unambiguously.” Further, the judges said the privacy problem could again be considered in court if Congress does approve the program.
NSA program not ordered to stop
One topic the ruling did not address was the allegation that the phone record collection violates the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union was the plaintiff in the case and argued that the program violates the Constitution. There are similar cases still pending on appeal in two other courts.
The ruling also stopped short of ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to stop collecting Americans’ phone records, according to Devlin Barrett and Damian Paletta of The Wall Street Journal. The judges pointed out that the provision of the Patriot Act that has been cited as allowing for the collection of phone records (Section 215) in bulk is set to expire on June 1, which means Congress will have to act either way on the topic soon.
The judges returned the case to the lower court judge so that it could be reviewed again. The NSA can choose to take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Debate over the Patriot Act
The Patriot Act was voted into law after the 9/11 terror attacks and is meant to enable intelligence officials to track known and suspected terrorists. However, it has also resulted in the NSA and other intelligence agencies spying on Americans’ virtual actions. There has been much debate on Capitol Hill about how far investigators should be allowed to go in their efforts to prevent acts of terrorism.
Next week, it appears like the House of Representatives will pass a bill to put a stop to phone record collection in bulk. The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill last week. Kentucky Sent. Mitch McConnell, who is currently the majority leader in the House, has opposed the bill. He urged Republican senators in November to vote against a similar bill and won, thus killing it. The White House has shown support for the bill, however.