The National Security Agency does not have legal authority to collect and store data on all U.S. telephone calls, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The decision, the first by an appellate court on the government’s sweeping data-collection program, says the Patriot Act does not give the NSA the authority it claims to collect so-called metadata on calls by people who are not specific targets of investigations.
The ruling comes as Congress debates whether to reauthorize the parts of the Patriot Act at issue. They expire June 1.
A bipartisan bill in the House would end the government’s bulk collection of phone data, which includes the number dialed by a phone, when the call takes place and how long it lasts. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has pushed a plan to reauthorize the current program but has encountered opposition in both parties.
The appeals court decision likely will strengthen the hand of opponents of the current program.
The three-judge panel, based in New York, unanimously ruled that the current collection program far exceeds the NSA’s legal authority.
The part of the law at issue, known as Section 215, allows the government to collect information “relevant to an authorized investigation.”
The government argues that records of all telephone calls are relevant because investigators need a complete history in order to search for phone numbers that terrorist suspects may have called. NSA officials repeatedly have likened the searches to the proverbial needle in a haystack, saying they need to have the full haystack in order to search for the needle.
“Such an expansive concept of relevance is unprecedented and unwarranted,” the judges ruled. Approving it “would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans.”
There is no evidence that Congress intended to give the NSA such broad power when it passed the law after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the judges said.
Because they decided the program wasn’t authorized under the law, the judges declined to rule on whether the program violated the Constitution.
Because Congress is currently debating the program and is expected to decide in a few weeks, the judges did not order the NSA to stop the collection program right away, saying it was “prudent to pause” and let Congress decide.
The White House said in a statement that it was studying the appeals court ruling.
“We are in the process of evaluating the decision handed down this morning,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
“The president has been clear that he believes we should end [the bulk collection program]as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism to preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data,” he added.
Opponents of the NSA program applauded the court ruling, with several noting that the decision shifts the debate over its future to Congress and potentially the Supreme Court.
“This is a monumental decision for all lovers of liberty,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. “While this is a step in the right direction, it is now up to the Supreme Court to strike down the NSA’s illegal spying program.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the decision “should help propel Congress to end the program as it is currently structured, and only allow the government to request data from the telephone companies” for a specific, court-authorized investigation.