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.
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 permitting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect business records deemed relevant to a counterterrorism investigation cannot be legitimately interpreted to permit the systematic bulk collection of domestic calling records.
The ruling was certain to increase the tension that has been building in Congress because the provision of the Patriot Act that has been cited to justify the bulk data collection program will expire in June unless lawmakers pass a bill to extend it.
It is the first time a higher-level court in the regular judicial system has reviewed the program, which since 2006 has repeatedly been approved in secret by a national security court.
The court, in a decision written by Judge Gerard E. Lynch, held that the Patriot Act provision, known as Section 215, “cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.”