A Washington Metro bus features an image of former NSA
contractor Edward Snowden on its side. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
A federal judge has ruled that a National Security Agency
program that collects records of millions of Americans' phone
calls is lawful, calling it a "counter-punch" to terrorism that
does not violate Americans' privacy rights.
The decision by US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan
dismissed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union
challenging the program, whose existence was first disclosed
by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
It also diverges from a Dec. 16 ruling by US District Judge
Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., who said the "almost
Orwellian" program was likely unconstitutional. He ordered
the government to stop collecting call data on the two
plaintiffs in that case.
The program also faces a legal challenge from the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, a data privacy group. Any split among
federal judges about the program's constitutionally could
ultimately be resolved by the US Supreme Court.
In a 54-page decision, Pauley said the program "vacuums up
information about virtually every telephone call to, from, or
within the United States."
But he said the program's constitutionality "is ultimately a
question of reasonableness," and that there was no evidence
that the government had used "bulk telephony metadata" for
any reason other than to investigate and disrupt terrorist
"This blunt tool only works because it collects everything,"
Pauley wrote. "Technology allowed al Qaeda to operate
decentralized and plot international terrorist attacks
remotely. The bulk telephony metadata collection program
represents the government's counter-punch."
Pauley denied the ACLU's motion for a preliminary injunction.
He said the public interest tilts "firmly" in the direction
of the government, whose interest in combating terrorism "is
an urgent objective of the highest order."
President Barack Obama has defended the surveillance program
but has indicated a willingness to consider constraints,
including whether to give control of metadata to phone
companies or other third parties. Intelligence officials have
said this could prove costly and slow investigations.
The ACLU had no immediate comment on the decision. White
House Spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment. A U.S.
Department of Justice spokesman said the department is
pleased with the decision.
RUBBER STAMP, OR VITAL WEAPON?
Leaks by Snowden have detailed the breadth of US electronic
surveillance and sparked a debate over how much leeway to
give the government in protecting Americans from terrorism.
Snowden is now in Russia under temporary asylum.
Larry Klayman, a conservative legal activist who brought the
case before Judge Leon, called Pauley's ruling "an outrageous
decision that ignores the legitimate fears of the American
people and in effect rubber stamps a police state."
Pauley was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton.
Leon was appointed by President George W. Bush.
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the
House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterintelligence
& Terrorism, in a statement said Pauley's decision
"preserves a vital weapon for the United States in our war
against international terrorism."
The case is American Civil Liberties Union et al v. Clapper
et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York,