U.S. Judge Says NSA Phone Data Program Is Legal, Valuable

A federal judge in New York ruled Friday that the National Security Agency's huge telephone data collection program is legal. In a written opinion, U.S. District Judge William Pauley said the program is a valuable tool to combat terrorism specifically because the records collection is so broad.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. A stunning court disagreement today over the National Security Agency's mass collection of telephone records. Just one week after a D.C. federal judge found it unconstitutional, New York federal Judge William Pauley determined concluded the opposite. The program, he says, is lawful. The conflicting opinions came in response to two challenges to the NSA's phone data collection.

As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it's now all but certain that the surveillance programs will be considered by the Supreme Court.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The two federal judges hearing the cases disagreed on almost every key issue before them. Judge Pauley in a ruling issued just today said the NSA's collection of all U.S. citizens' telephone data, while breathtaking in quantity, does not amount to the kind of search prohibited under the Fourth Amendment.

Federal Judge Richard Leon ruling last week in a separate case, said it surely did and that James Madison who wrote the Constitution would be aghast. The government has argued that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does not leave room for these challenges now coming before the courts. Judge Pauley in New York agreed. The D.C. district judge did not.

Finally, the two judges disagreed on whether the bulk collection of telephone data is an effective counterterrorism tool. Judge Leon in D.C. said he had serious doubts, but Judge Pauley in New York opened his ruling by telling the story of a 9/11 hijacker who, according to the government, might have been caught under the NSA's telephone surveillance program.

The challenge to the NSA program in the New York case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Here's ACLU lawyer Brett Max Kaufman.

BRETT MAX KAUFMAN: We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government surveillance.

GJELTEN: And misapplies past precedents, he said. The ACLU is especially critical of Judge Pauley's claim that the effectiveness of the surveillance program could not be seriously disputed. Kaufman said each of the examples cited by Judge Pauley in this regard have been challenged by three senators from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

KAUFMAN: They have conclusively debunked those examples and we think Judge Pauley got it wrong in relying on them.

GJELTEN: A Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the department is pleased by Judge Pauley's ruling. Both his ruling and Judge Leon's ruling will be appealed to their respective circuit courts. The Affordable Care Act also went through conflicting rulings at the district court level. And like Obamacare, the NSA telephone surveillance program in all likelihood will be settled only by the Supreme Court. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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