THE sweeping NSA surveillance programme that collects the phone records of millions of Americans is illegal, a federal court ruled yesterday, dealing a major blow to the White House and US intelligence agencies.
The court ruled that the bulk data collection programme exposed by Edward Snowden was not authorised by the Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terror legislation passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The 97-page ruling does not immediately halt the surveillance programme, but it does leave its future in doubt.
The US government may appeal to the Supreme Court in the hope that America's highest judges will take a more favourable view of the argument that the programme is legal and necessary for stopping terrorism.
Congress could also pass a new law that explicitly authorises the phone records programme. Such an effort would likely be met with fierce resistance from both left-wing Democrats and libertarian Republicans, who have tried in the past to rein in the NSA's power.
Parts of the Patriot Act are due to expire on June 1, meaning Congress has less than a month to decide whether to re-authorise the law or allow it to lapse.
The court ruling was hailed as a major victory by civil liberties groups against a "dragnet" programme that captures the records of millions of Americans who are not suspected of committing any crime.
The phone records programme has been running in secret for a decade but its existence was brought to light by Mr Snowden's decision to leak thousands of classified files in 2013. It allows the FBI to collect the "metadata" of virtually every phone call made in the US, meaning authorities know who called who, the time the call was made and the length of the conversation.
The programme does not record the actual call itself. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that the programme was justified by section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law passed less than a month after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
But a federal appeals court in New York yesterday rejected that argument, saying section 215 "cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorise the telephone metadata programme." The court did not rule that the programme violated the US constitution - as some privacy advocates have argued - and left the door open for Congress to explicitly authorise the mass collection of phone records.
"If Congress chooses to authorise such a far-reaching and unprecedented programme, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously," the court ruled." (© Daily Telegraph, London)