A federal court today shot down a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the National Security Agency’s bulk phone metadata collection program, determining that the spy agency’s actions are legal.
The ruling by U.S. District Court judge William Pauley contradicts a Dec. 16 D.C. District Court ruling that the collection program likely violated the Fourth Amendment.
Pauley’s ruling today was framed in the context of changes made to intelligence gathering post-Sept. 11, and the need to find terrorists among streams of disconnected data.
“This blunt tool only works because it collects everything,” Pauley wrote. “If plumbed, such data can reveal a rich profile of every individual as well as a comprehensive record of people’s associations with one another.”
The challenge was filed by the ACLU in June shortly after the first documents taken by NSA whistleblower were published and reported on in the Guardian. Since then, the depths of NSA surveillance have been revealed, including a dragnet that sweeps up not only foreign intelligence, but connections to those targets in U.S., including Americans with no suspected ties to terrorism.
The NSA has also been accused of subverting the development of encryption standards, tapping connections between data centers hosted by large Internet providers such as Google and Yahoo, and having direct access to data housed at ISPs, among many other revelations.
Judge Pauley said in his ruling at the Snowden revelations of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders has stirred not only public debate by litigation. He found the telephony metadata program to be lawful with a caveat.
“The question of whether that program should be conducted is for the other two coordinate branches of government to decide,” he wrote.
The ACLU filed its suit on June 11 seeking a preliminary injunction to halt bulk collection; the suit, which was subsequently dismissed today, named Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, NSA Director Keith Alexander, Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder and others.
“There is no evidence that the Government has used any of the bulk telephony metadata it collected for any purpose other than investigating and disrupting terrorist attacks,” Pauley wrote in his ruling. “While there have been unintentional violations of the guidelines, those appear to stem from human error or the incredibly complex computer programs that support this vital tool. And once detected, those violations were self-reported and stopped.”
The ruling two weeks ago that declared the program likely violated the Fourth Amendment granted a preliminary injunction barring the collection of data belonging to two individuals who asserted the NSA collection program violated their expectation of privacy.
The ruling issued by Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia prevented the NSA from collecting any more records pertaining to defendants Larry Klayman and Charles Strange and also required the agency to destroy any records it already has relating to those two Verizon customers. Leon also stayed his injunction pending an appeal by the government.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” Leon wrote in his ruling.