The panel of three appellate judges ruled that the Patriot Act was never written to authorize the vast surveillance that the NSA engages in.
Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for a three-judge panel that Section 215, which addresses the FBI's ability to gather business records, could not be interpreted to have permitted the NSA to collect a “staggering” amount of phone records, contrary to claims by the Bush and Obama administrations.
“Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans,” Lynch wrote in a 97-page decision. “We would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language. There is no evidence of such a debate.”
The court did not rule on whether or not the surveillance violated the Constitution.
Now Congress must quickly decide if it should replace or completely halt the controversial anti-terrorism surveillance.
The ruling doesn’t immediately halt the domestic phone records surveillance program. But if it’s not overturned by a higher court it could signal the program’s end—and it at least forces Congress to choose whether it wishes to explicitly authorize the program when the Patriot Act comes up for renewal on June 1st.
“We hold that the text of § 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program,” theruling reads. “We do so comfortably in the full understanding that if Congress chooses to authorize such a far-reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously. Until such time as it does so, however, we decline to deviate from widely accepted interpretations of well‐established legal standards.”
The ruling comes as the latest surprise development in a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union against the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that immediately followed Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s mass domestic surveillance under the 215 section’s purported authorization. The lawsuit had been dismissed by a lower court in 2013, but the three appellate judges overruled decision.
Since it was first revealed, the 215 metadata surveillance program has been under attack from privacy advocates, and even the White House has said it’s exploring alternatives to the current system of collecting every American’s phone records. In a statement responding to the ruling, a spokesperson for the National Security Council writes that it’s already looking at a replacement for the program. “The President has been clear that he believes we should end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism to preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data,” writes the NSC’s assistant press secretary Ned Price. “We continue to work closely with members of Congress from both parties to do just that.”
One must also ask, “Does it matter?” We have seen Obama simply disobey rulings from a federal court without consequence.