The U.S. government is expected to appeal a judge's ruling that the National Security Agency's secret collection of telephone records from millions of Americans is likely unconstitutional.
The decision has triggered new conjecture about the legality of U.S. surveillance. Former national security contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a vast trove of details about the U.S. spying before fleeing to asylum in Russia, praised the ruling, but two national security legal experts said in VOA interviews Tuesday that courts could ultimately uphold government surveillance programs.
Robert Turner of the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law said that a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the collection of telephone data is still relevant even though cell phones had not been invented at the time, nor their widespread usage throughout the world even imagined.
He compared the government's limited collection of telephone records - the numbers called, and the length and date of them, but not the content - to the much more intrusive searches of travelers at airports. Those searches have been ruled legal, and not a violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of illegal searches of individuals.
"Every court to consider the issue has said that these are lawful searches," said Turner. "They are lawful because in special needs situations, they balance the government's interests against the individual's interests. The courts have consistently ruled that the possibility that an airplane might be destroyed or hijacked outweighs the privacy interests to not be searched of the individuals."
National security expert David Pozen of the Columbia University law school in New York also said Monday's ruling by Judge Richard Leon may not be upheld by a higher court, but could influence other legal cases and lawmakers' consideration of the scope of U.S. surveillance.
"It kind of further legitimated the notion that the NSA was up to something deeply wrong, and I think may - before the courts ultimately decide on the legality of the program - may actually just help spur Congress to revise the program," said Pozen.
In his ruling, Judge Leon said he "cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion" of peoples' privacy than the government's collection of such information without prior judicial approval. In ruling on a court challenge to the surveillance, Leon said the spying "surely" infringes on the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against illegal searches.
Leon did not immediately enforce his ruling, giving the government a chance to appeal the decision to a higher court.
U.S. President Barack Obama met Tuesday with the heads of leading technology companies who have voiced concern about the scope of U.S. surveillance programs.
The White House said Obama talked with the chiefs of Google, Yahoo, Apple, AT&T and other companies about their privacy concerns, as well as ways to improve the government's HealthCare.gov web site.
Snowden leaked information about the telephone data collection earlier this year. It was among the first disclosures in the wave of leaks from the 1.7 million documents that the NSA says Snowden stole before fleeing first to Hong Kong and then to Russia.
One NSA official assessing the damage of the Snowden leaks, Rick Ledgett, told the 60 Minutes TV news program on Sunday that Snowden made off with "the keys to the kingdom."
U.S. officials have sought Snowden's extradition to stand trial on espionage charges, but Russia has refused.
At the White House Monday, a spokesman said Snowden should be returned to the United States as soon as possible to stand trial on charges of leaking the classified information.
Snowden wrote an open letter to the people of Brazil, published Tuesday in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. In the letter he asks for asylum, the second time he’s done so. He already has requested asylum in a number of other countries.
Snowden’s letter said that while some in the Brazilian government asked for his assistance in investigating the extent of U.S. surveillance there, he is unable to because “the United States government has worked very hard to limit my ability to do so… Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the U.S. government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak.”
Snowden praises Brazil as “inspiring” because it’s a country that listened to his warning and is leading “the United Nations Human Rights Committee to recognize for the first time in history that privacy does not stop where the digital network starts, and that the mass surveillance of innocents is a violation of human rights.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington in October because of revelations that the United States monitored her personal communications and those of other Brazilians. Those allegations came from documents leaked by Snowden.