A week after a federal judge in Washington, D.C., said the National Security Agency's gathering of phone records of millions of Americans is likely unconstitutional, a judge in New York ruled Friday that the NSA program is legal and helps deal with the threat of terrorism.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan said the program "represents the government's counter-punch" to fight al-Qaida's terror network, and called it legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
The NSA program was first exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, leading to severe criticism of its secret surveillance. But Pauley said an exercise such as the collection of phone-data could have helped prevent 9/11 terror strikes.
"The government learned from its mistake and adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world," the judge said, according to The Associated Press. "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 NSA's "blunt tool" is effective because it collects everything, Pauley wrote in the 54-page decision in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which was dismissed. "Technology allowed al Qaeda to operate decentralized and plot international terrorist attacks remotely. The bulk telephony metadata collection program represents the government's counter-punch," the judge said, according to Reuters.
ACLU's deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer expressed disappointment with the court's decision.
"We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government's surveillance and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections," Jaffer was quoted as saying.
The group plans to challenge the ruling in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
ACLU contended before the judge that the Patriot Act must not be interpreted by the government to gain such a broad authority that it would include the secret mass collection of financial, health and even library records of innocent Americans.
The President Obama administration welcomed the ruling. "We are pleased with the decision," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr was quoted as saying.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C. called the NSA program "almost Orwellian" and "indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion" that possibly violated the constitution.
Leon asked the government to stop gathering phone data while allowing it to appeal the decision.
"I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," Leon said. "Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment."
After Friday's ruling, which was in contrast to that by Leon, the dispute over the NSA program is likely to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.