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Appeals Court Rules NSA's Bulk Collection Program Is Illegal


For almost a decade, the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of nearly every American. This became public two years ago with the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Well, now a federal appeals court says that bulk collection program is illegal. The decision comes as there's a looming deadline for Congress to decide the fate of the program. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The ruling that a three-judge panel from New York's Second Circuit Appeals Court issued today was fairly narrow in scope but possibly huge in its impact. It did not decide whether the NSA's massive collection of Americans' phone records violates the Constitution. It simply said that the bulk collection of those records exceeds what Congress authorized in the Patriot Act and is therefore illegal.

JAMEEL JAFFER: I think it should end any debate about whether this particular program is lawful or not.

WELNA: That's the American Civil Liberties Union's Jameel Jaffer. He's the lead counsel in this case brought against the nation's top security officials. Jaffer concedes that he would've liked a court injunction as well that would have ordered the government to stop the NSA's ongoing bulk collection program.

JAFFER: We would prefer that there be an injunction like that, but to tell you the truth, you know, the main goal of the litigation was to get a ruling of exactly the kind we got today. So we're very pleased with it.


SENATOR RICHARD BURR: It's my choice to continue the program because the program has worked.

WELNA: That was Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee speaking earlier this afternoon on the Senate floor. Burr is cosponsoring legislation that would extend the bulk collection program for another five years. It's due to expire at the end of the month.


BURR: Why in the world would we think about rolling back the tools that are the only tools that put us post-9/11 versus pre-9/11? The threat is greater today domestically and around the world than it's ever been.

WELNA: Fellow Republicans who also favor extending bulk collection joined Burr in defending the program. While Arkansas's Tom Cotton made no direct reference to today's court ruling, he did try to buttress the program's legal standing.


SENATOR TOM COTTON: The program has been approved 40 times by 15 different, independent federal judges based on 36 years of Supreme Court precedent. It has been approved by two presidents of both parties.

WELNA: While Congressional Democrats generally support ending bulk collection, it's an issue that sharply divides Republicans. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that ends that program. Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner sponsored that bill.


CONGRESSMAN JAMES SENSENBRENNER: I was the chairman of this committee on September, 11, and the author of the Patriot Act. I can say in no uncertain terms that Congress did not intend to allow the bulk collection of Americans' records. The government's overbroad collection is based on a blatant misreading of the law.

WELNA: Congress is facing a tough deadline. Either it acts to extend or revise the bulk collection provision, or it will expire on June 1. University of Richmond federal courts expert Carl Tobias says the timing of today's court decision is exquisite.

CARL TOBIAS: I think the court is gently trying to signal to Congress that if it doesn't act, that the court might revisit the issue.

WELNA: And if the court does revisit the issue, it could order the injunction against bulk collection that it refrained from imposing today. The matter could also end up in the Supreme Court if Congress, in the end, does allow the program to continue. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.