NEW YORK – A US judge ruled Friday that the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of telephone calls is lawful, fanning a legal conflict likely to be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court.
Federal judge William Pauley in New York threw out a petition from the American Civil Liberties Union and said the program was vital in preventing an Al-Qaeda terror attack on American soil.
Ten days earlier, however, another federal judge in Washington had deemed that NSA surveillance is probably unconstitutional, laying the groundwork for a protracted series of legal challenges.
“The question for this court is whether the government’s bulk telephony metadata program is lawful. This court finds it is,” said the 54-page ruling published in New York on Friday.
The scale by which NSA indiscriminately gathers data on millions of private calls was exposed by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, sparking an international and domestic outcry.
Protected by judicial checks and executive and congressional oversight, Pauley said the program does not violate the US Constitution’s fourth amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“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,” he wrote.
The judge sided with US spy chiefs who say that by connecting the dots between archived calls and terrorist suspects, US officials can keep the country safe.
The NSA hoovers up information about virtually every telephone call to, from and within the United States, and says it is the only way to discern patterns left behind by foreign terror groups.
The judge quoted the 2004 report by the 9/11 Commission — the panel which investigated the 2001 Al-Qaeda attack on the United States — as saying it was a false choice between liberty and security, as “nothing is more apt to imperil civil liberties than the success of a terrorist attack on American soil.”
“As the September 11th attacks demonstrate, the cost of missing such a thread can be horrific. Technology allowed Al-Qaeda to operate decentralized and plot international terrorist attacks remotely,” he wrote.
“The bulk telephony metadata collection program represents the government’s counter-punch: connecting fragmented and fleeting communications to reconstruct and eliminate Al-Qaeda’s terror network.”
The judge quoted examples in which NSA phone monitoring in 2009 exposed an Al-Qaeda plot to bomb the New York subway, and cite a plot by convicted Pakistani-American terrorist David Headley to bomb a Danish newspaper office.
“Unintentional violations of guidelines,” Pauley said, appeared to have stemmed from “human error” and “incredibly complex computer programs” and had been rectified where discovered.
This month, an official panel handed President Barack Obama a review of the NSA’s surveillance program along with more than 40 recommendations to install safeguards and limit its scope.
But the administration is not expected to significantly curtail the mission, and Snowden remains a fugitive from US justice who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.