A federal appeals court in New York on Thursday ruled that the once-secret National Security Agency program that is systematically collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk is illegal. The decision comes as a fight in Congress is intensifying over whether to end and replace the program, or to extend it without changes.
In a 97-page ruling, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, known as Section 215, cannot be legitimately interpreted to allow the bulk collection of domestic calling records.
I personally enjoy the closing components, where the Court refuses to let Congress off the hook:
We note that at the present time, §215 is scheduled to expire in just several weeks. The government vigorously contends that the program is necessary for maintaining national security, which of course is a public interest of the highest order. Allowing the program to remain in place for a few weeks while Congress decides whether and under what conditions it should continue is a lesser intrusion on appellants’ privacy than they faced at the time this litigation began. In light of the asserted national security interests at stake, we deem it prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape.
Moreover, given the necessity of congressional action, the statutory issues on which we rest our decision could become moot (at least as far as the future of the telephone metadata program is concerned), and the constitutional issues appellants continue to press radically altered, by events that will occur in a short time frame. If Congress decides to authorize the collection of the data desired by the government under conditions identical to those now in place, the program will continue in the future under that authorization. There will be time then to address appellants’ constitutional issues, which may be significantly altered by the findings made, and conclusions reached, by the political branches, and to decide what if any relief appellants are entitled to based on our finding that the program as it has operated to date is unlawful. If Congress decides to institute a substantially modified program, the constitutional issues will certainly differ considerably from those currently raised. If Congress fails to reauthorize §215 itself, or reenacts §215 without expanding it to authorize the telephone metadata program, there will be no need for prospective relief, since the program will end, and once again there will be time to address what if any relief is required in terms of the data already acquired by the government. We believe that such issues will be best addressed in the first instance by the district court in due course.
This case serves as an example of the increasing complexity of balancing the paramount interest in protecting the security of our nation – a job in which, as the President has stated, “actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic,” Remarks by the President on Review of Signals Intelligence – with the privacy interests of its citizens in a world where surveillance capabilities are vast and where it is difficult if not impossible to avoid exposing a wealth of information about oneself to those surveillance mechanisms. Reconciling the clash of these values requires productive contribution from all three branches of government, each of which is uniquely suited to the task in its own way.
For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the district court erred in ruling that §215 authorizes the telephone metadata collection program, and instead hold that the telephone metadata program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized and therefore violates §215. Accordingly, we VACATE the district court’s judgment dismissing the complaint and REMAND the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.