Mobile phone simulating call to German Chancellor Merkel next to a tablet showing the logo of NSA is seen in picture illustration taken in Frankfurt

A federal appeals court panel ruling declares the NSA’s phone data collection program illegal.

By David Lauter, David S. Cloud and Lisa Mascaro
May 7, 2015

The National Security Agency does not have legal authority to secretly collect and store data on all U.S. telephone calls, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, calling the highly classified surveillance program “an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans.”

The unanimous decision by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York, said the intelligence agency far exceeded its legal powers in collecting so-called metadata on calls by hundreds of millions of Americans who were not specific targets of counter-terrorism or espionage investigations.

The court’s sharp rejection of the controversial NSA program, which was first disclosed publicly in 2013 in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, puts new pressure on Congress to reform the agency’s bulk collection of telephone data. The ruling significantly strengthens the hand of the program’s opponents in Congress.

“This is a huge step for individual Americans’ rights,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), an outspoken opponent of the program. “This dragnet surveillance program violates the law and tramples on Americans’ privacy rights without making our country any safer.”

The decision has no immediate effect, however, since the three-judge panel agreed to let Congress decide whether to end or replace it in coming weeks. The provision in the USA Patriot Act that the NSA has relied on as authorization for government collection of phone records will expire on June 1 unless Congress votes to extend it.

A bipartisan bill in the House would amend the NSA program, and the White House has called for leaving call records with the nation’s telephone companies. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pushed a plan to reauthorize the current program but has encountered opposition in both parties.

The White House said Thursday it was studying the court ruling. The administration could appeal to the Supreme Court, but if Congress resolves the issue, further legal proceedings might be moot.

President Obama “has been clear that he believes we should end [the program] as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism to preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.

The 97-page ruling, which overturns a lower court decision, comes from the first high-level court in the regular judicial system to review the NSA program.

Initially authorized by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the bulk collection of domestic phone data has been repeatedly approved since May 2006 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret and issues classified rulings.

The NSA has secretly collected telephone numbers, phone call times, duration and other data, but not the actual conversations, for most calls made in the U.S. and from overseas under the disputed provision of the law, known as Section 215. The collection includes virtually all landline calls and some made from cellphones.

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