US court reverses decision finding NSA act illegal
A U.S. appeals court on Friday ruled in favor of the Obama administration in a dispute over the U.S. National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone data on hundreds of millions of Americans.
The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that said the program likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches.
The ruling means the government can continue collecting the data for the next few months, although the program is set to expire at the end of November under legislation that Congress passed to replace it. The appeals court sent the case back for a judge to determine what further details about the program the government must provide.
The uproar over the NSA’s program began in June 2013 when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the surveillance to the news media. The agency has said it collects the phone numbers of calls made and received and how long a call lasts, but does not monitor the contents of a call.
Critics of the administration’s surveillance program say collecting massive amounts of data on phone numbers is a violation of Americans’ privacy rights. In response, the government has said it reviews only a tiny fraction of the information it collects.
The NSA stores the information in an NSA database that analysts can query for matches against the phone numbers of known terrorists abroad, searching for domestic connections to plots.
Friday’s ruling is the latest in a succession of decisions in federal courts in Washington and New York that at various points threatened the constitutionality of the NSA’s surveillance program, but have so far upheld the amass- ing of records from U.S. domestic phone customers.
The appeals court ruled that challengers to the program have not shown “a substantial likelihood” that they would win their case on the merits.
The lawsuit was brought by Larry Klayman, a conservative lawyer, and Charles Strange, the father of a cryptologist technician who was killed in Afghanistan when his helicopter was shot down in 2011. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled in 2013 that the collection was likely unconstitutional, but he put that decision on hold pending a government appeal.
Klayman, an activist who has filed hundreds of lawsuits against the federal government, said he is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court. He also said he was confident he could prove that the NSA was “into my cell phone records.”
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An appeals court in New York ruled in May that the USA Patriot Act could not be interpreted to allow the NSA’s bulk collection of phone surveillance.
But the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret judicial body that oversees the surveillance program, ruled in June that the New York court was wrong. On Friday, the secret court renewed its temporary extension of the program.
Neither of the decisions against the government interrupted the collection of electronic records while the legal disputes played out.
In June, the U.S. national legislature approved a measure that would phase out the program over the next six months and replace it with one that keeps the records with phone companies, but allows the government to search them with a warrant.