A federal appeals court waded into a raging debate on Capitol Hill over government spying, ruling Thursday that the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of Americans’ phone records is unlawful.
The ruling by a three-judge panel in New York comes just weeks before the looming June 1 deadline for Congress to act or allow the law to expire and amid an intense debate over whether to re-authorize the law, make modest changes or let it die altogether.
Presidents Obama and former President George W. Bush have said the bulk collection of phone data is lawful under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, due to expire next month. The American public was unaware of the program until NSA leaker Edward Snowden exposed the program a year and a half ago.
The decision is a major victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants the data collection halted and argues that it violates the public’s civil liberties and personal privacy. The group had appealed a lower court judge’s decision that the program was lawful.
Sens. Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee are calling on McConnell to bring up an NSA reform bill this month.
The court declined to specify whether the program is constitutional but said any attempt by Congress to modify the law would subject it to new court scrutiny.
The decision is a major boon for opponents and will likely hurt President Obama’s and others’ argument to keep some form of the program intact. It will be even more difficult now for major proponents of the program, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to argue in favor of a straight renewal of the spying law.