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Judge Rules That NSA Collection Of Phone Data Is Lawful

A federal judge has ruled that the National Security Agency's bulk gathering of the telephone records of millions of Americans is legal — less than two weeks after another federal judge ruled that the program violated the Constitution.

In a written opinion, U.S. District Judge William Pauley rejected a challenge to the program by the ACLU. He said the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata represented "a government counter-punch" against al-Qaida's operations because it connected disparate bits of information.

"The government ... adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks around the world," he wrote. "It launched a number of counter-measures, including a bulk telephony metadata collection program — a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data."

The decision stands in contrast to a ruling earlier this month in Washington that the program violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reported, Judge Richard Leon, in his ruling, said there's no evidence to suggest the program actually works to prevent terrorist attacks.

Here's more from Carrie's story:

"The Justice Department says it's reviewing the court decision and that it continues to believe the data collection is legal, in part because a 1979 Supreme Court case held that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to phone records held by third parties like telecom companies.

"Judge Leon says that ruling no longer applies because so many things have changed in the past generation, including people's use of cellphones and the ability of the government to gather information so cheaply and easily. The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to be the ultimate arbiter."

Friday's ruling is the latest development in the case that has garnered headlines around the world. It began earlier this year when Edward Snowden, then a contractor for the NSA, leaked a trove of documents about the agency's surveillance operations. Revelations the NSA's surveillance targeted people across the world, and even the leaders of friendly nations, have embarrassed the U.S. government and strained relations with allies such as Brazil and Germany. They have also created a lively debate in the U.S. over government surveillance and privacy.

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