As Americans wait for Congress to decide next month whether to renew the Patriot Act and the vast NSA metadata surveillance program it’s made possible, a panel of three appellate judges has made the decision on its own: The Patriot Act, they’ve now ruled, was never written to authorize the sort of sweeping surveillance the NSA interpreted it to allow.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on Thursday that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata by the NSA wasn’t in fact authorized by section 215 of the Patriot Act, as the intelligence community has argued since the program was first revealed in the leaks of Edward Snowden two years ago. 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,” the ruling 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.”
But the new court ruling will nonetheless have real significance for Congress’s upcoming decision as to whether and how to reform the Patriot Act. A reform bill known as the USA Freedom Act, which would limit the 215 metadata collection, has advanced in the House. But that bill has been opposed by Republicans.
Now, says Cato Institute privacy researcher Julian Sanchez, reform is almost inevitable. “This changes the calculus. You now have a federal appellate court saying that the statute in its current form does not authorize this program. If the program needs to continue, it may not be allowed under a straight reauthorization,” Sanchez says. “If your goal is to preserve this program, reform becomes the surest way to preserve some version of it.”
(Full article by Andy Greenberg at Wired)