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Federal appeals court declares government mass phone surveillance is illegal

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(NaturalNews) As Congress debates whether to "reform" or end the controversial USA Patriot Act by making it harder for presidents to use it to spy on all Americans, a federal appeals court has weighed in, ruling in recent days that the broad surveillance authority the law supposedly conveys is unconstitutional.

As reported by The New York Times, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York said in a 97-page ruling that the once-secretive National Security Agency program that mass-collected Americans' phone records is illegal. In particular, the court singled out Section 215 of the law, which Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have cited as justification for the NSA program. The panel ruled that the section cannot be reasonably or legitimately interpreted to permit the bulk collection of domestic phone calls.

The Times further reported:

The provision of the act used to justify the bulk data program is to expire June 1, and the ruling is certain to increase tension that has been building in Congress.

It also comes as controversy over electronic surveillance is building in Europe, including a push in France to increase domestic spying and a decision by Germany to reduce cooperation on surveillance with the United States.

Law does not authorize overly broad data collection

As noted by Wired, the Second Circuit's decision does not immediately end the NSA program. However, if the case proceeds to the nation's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court, and a majority of justices affirm the lower court's ruling, then the program -- if it is extended by Congress -- would have to end under Section 215.

"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," the panel said in its ruling. "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."

Ned Price, a spokesman for the president's National Security Council, said that the White House had already instructed officials to find a replacement 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," he said, as reported by Wired. "We continue to work closely with members of Congress from both parties to do just that."

Will Uncle Sam appeal the ruling?

Some Republicans and Democrats want to simply extend the program as-is, but a broader bipartisan coalition is building in opposition to that idea. Simple extension is supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, but it's not clear if there is enough support either in his chamber or the House for that.

Some are pushing replacement legislation called the USA Freedom Act, which supporters say will limit Section 215 metadata collection, although that claim has been challenged by critics such as former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

The Times noted that the data collection program had been repeatedly approved in secret by judges who served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, otherwise known as the FISA court, which was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The court oversees national security surveillance and approves surveillance warrants sought by the government. Since the court's business is always a matter of national security, the only attorneys who present arguments and evidence are those working for the federal government. That court has been willing to accept the government's interpretation of Section 215.

The American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case, praised the Second Circuit's ruling.

The decision sends the case back to a lower federal court to decide what to do next. The government could appeal to the full appeals court and eventually to the Supreme Court, barring congressional action.







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