Section 215 of Patriot Act, used to justify bulk collection of phone data, was never a lawful basis for that collection:
WASHINGTON — 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 USA Patriot Act known as Section 215 cannot be legitimately interpreted to allow the bulk collection of domestic calling records.
The ruling was certain to increase the tension that has been building in Congress as the provision of the act that has been cited to justify the bulk data collection program nears expiration. It will expire in June unless lawmakers pass a bill to extend it.
Thursday’s ruling did not come with any injunction ordering the program to cease, and it is not clear that anything else will happen in the judicial system before Congress has to make a decision about the expiring law.
It is the first time a higher-level court in the regular judicial system has reviewed the program.
The data collection had repeatedly been approved in secret by judges serving on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, which oversees national security surveillance. Those judges, who hear arguments only from the government, were willing to accept an interpretation of Section 215 that the appeals court on Thursday rejected.
The court, in a unanimous ruling written by Judge Gerard E. Lynch, held that Section 215 “cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.” It declared the program illegal, saying, “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.”
See, also, U.S. Court of Appeals ruling.