Appeals Court Rules NSA Phone Surveillance Is Illegal

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Photo: Fang Zhe/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that the National Security Agency’s phone data collection program, uncovered by Edward Snowden’s leak, is illegal and “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized” under the Patriot Act. The court did not say whether the program violated the Constitution in its 97-page ruling.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit against the government in 2013, has declared “victory.”

The provision in the Patriot Act that the government used to justify the surveillance was set to expire in June anyway, and Congress is currently debating whether to reauthorize it. With this ruling, they will now have to decide whether they want to broaden the language governing the NSA’s collection of data, something that the Appeals Court acknowledged when deeming the existing program illegal.

We do so comfortably in the full understanding that if Congress choses to authorize such a far-reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, unambiguously. Until such times as it does so, however, we decline to deviate from widely accepted interpretations of well-established legal standards.

Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch added, “Such a monumental shift in our approach to combating terrorism requires a clearer signal from Congress than a recycling of oft-used language long held in similar contexts to mean something far narrower.”

In other words, if this program is going to continue, Congress is going to have to go on the record saying they approve of it and consider it a necessary component of America’s defense. The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill ending bulk phone data collection last week, and the White House gave the idea a thumbs-up; the fate of the bill in the Senate is uncertain, given reservations from prominent Republicans.

Several legislators of all ideological stripes have taken to Twitter to comment on the case — and what Congress should do about it.

Americans have expressed skepticism about the utility of the data collection in the two years since Snowden revealed the program’s existence. A Pew Research Center poll from January 2015 showed that 57 percent of Americans think it is unacceptable that the government monitor American citizens’ communications. However, Americans are also mostly unconcerned that the government might be monitoring their own communications.