Friday, January 03, 2014

FISA court re-authorizes NSA's bulk phone metadata spying program

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has re-authorized the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata, agreeing with the Obama administration that the practice is "lawful," the Huffington Post reported on Friday.

Details about the court's decisions are usually considered secret, but in this case, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a statement that it was releasing information about the renewal “in light of the significant and continuing public interest” in the program. The program was secret until it was revealed through leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden last year.

The FISA court has oversight of such intelligence activities; it is called upon to renew the metadata collection program every 90 days. The court does not allow the actual content of calls to be "collected."

The ODNI also said that the intelligence community “continues to be open to modifications to this program that would provide additional privacy and civil liberty protections while still maintaining its operational benefits.”

The ruling came despite a recent court decision, in which U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's program violates the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures. His is the only time that any court has challenged the legality of the metadata collection; two other courts have upheld the NSA's program.

Also on Friday, the Department of Justice appealed Leon's ruling. It asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to reconsider Leon's opinion. The DOJ’s appeal came only a day after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a notice of appeal in one of the differing judgments, its separate lawsuit against the NSA’s phone records program.

Last week, Judge William Pauley III of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the NSA’s phone records program is legal and threw out the ACLU challenge.

As these cases would take place -- assuming they do -- in separate U.S. District Courts of Appeal, should their decisions differ, it would set up a showdown in the Supreme Court, which generally steps in when separate Courts of Appeal disagree in their rulings.

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