ACLU fights ruling on NSA phone surveillance

As promised, the American Civil Liberties Union appeals a ruling that found the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata to be legal and a "vital tool."

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The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed an appeal in its lawsuit challenging the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata.

The appeal comes after the case, ACLU vs. James R. Clapper, was dismissed last week by US District Judge William Pauley. In his ruling, Pauley said the US government had a pressing need for the surveillance program as a method for detecting and preventing terrorist attacks and that it did not go to unreasonable lengths in that pursuit.

The ACLU, which vowed last week to press on with the case, argues that the NSA program violates both statutory law and the Constitution.

"The government has a legitimate interest in tracking the associations of suspected terrorists, but tracking those associations does not require the government to subject every citizen to permanent surveillance," Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said in a release. "Further, as the president's own review panel recently observed, there's no evidence that this dragnet program was essential to preventing any terrorist attack. We categorically reject the notion that the threat of terrorism requires citizens of democratic countries to surrender the freedoms that make democracies worth defending."

The ACLU expects the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to set an expedited briefing schedule and hear oral arguments in the spring.

So far, courts are split over the legality of the government's phone surveillance program. US District Judge Richard Leon ruled earlier in December that the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata was "likely unconstitutional." In that case, Klayman vs. Obama, the judge issued preliminary injunctions to halt the NSA's telephony metadata collection and to have the data already collected be destroyed, but stayed the ruling to allow for appeals.

Both cases stem from revelations about the NSA's collection of US citizens' phone and Internet data that were detailed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. President Obama has said programs like the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata, which the government legally justifies under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, could be reworked to address concerns over privacy and potential domestic spying. The president is expected to announce decisions on several recommendations to reform the NSA sometime in January.

Update, 2:30 p.m. PT: Added more background on the NSA's phone surveillance program.