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December 18, 2013

Analyst: Court Ruling Will Not Radically Impact US Surveillance

by Zlatica Hoke

The U.S. security surveillance program and a former government contractor who leaked details about it are in the headlines again, after a U.S. court ruled that secret collecting of telephone records from American citizens likely violates the U.S. constitution.  Some experts say the ruling, which is not final, may not lead to a radical change in the controversial practice. 

Although the government is expected to appeal the court's ruling, many Americans welcomed it, among them fugitive national security contractor Edward Snowden, who disclosed the practice earlier this year after allegedly stealing 1.7 million documents from the National Security Agency.  In a message from Russia,  which gave him temporary asylum, Snowden said the ruling by a U.S. district judge justifies his disclosures.

Law professor Stephen Vladack at American University in Washington said the ruling will not make much difference in the short term.

"It actually means very little in the short term, because Judge Leon stayed the decision, which means it will have no immediate effect.  And so the government will be able to do tomorrow what it was able to do before Judge [Richard] Leon’s decision," he said.

But Vladack said the decision has symbolic significance because it is the first time that a U.S. federal judge has ruled that the NSA is not only exceeding its authority, but also is violating the constitution when it secretly collects phone records on a massive scale.  He says several court cases have resulted from Snowden's leaks, and so the issue eventually could reach the Supreme Court.

"The Snowden disclosures really were primarily focused on two different programs. The first is the meta-data program when the government was collecting phone records. The second - and perhaps the more significant internationally - is the Prism program where the government is collecting direct content of Internet communications directly from servers outside the United States," stated Vladack.

Vladack said only Congress could curb litigation on the controversial program by deciding whether to provide stronger legal footing for the phone records surveillance or restrict it before the courts do.  So far, lawmakers have been largely unconcerned about the collection of data abroad, but Vladack said Snowden's disclosures may change that.

President Barack Obama has defended the program when confronted by foreign leaders. "We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information," he said.

Obama Tuesday sought to allay concerns about the U.S. surveillance program in a meeting at the White House with leaders of top technology companies. It was not clear if the court's ruling was brought up during the meeting.