A U.S. appeals court in New York ruled Thursday that the clandestine National Security Agency's massive collection of phone records of Americans is illegal, far exceeding the scope of what Congress authorized.
"Congress cannot reasonably be said to have ratified a progam of which many members of Congress - and all members of the public - were not aware," a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 97-page opinion.
The decision came in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contesting the NSA's collection of what the spy agency calls "metadata" -- millions of records of phone calls, including the numbers called and the times the calls were made, although not the content of the calls. The surveillance was unknown to almost all Americans until two years ago when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a trove of documents about NSA spying before he fled overseas, eventually to asylum in Russia.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan stopped short of ruling on the constitutionality of NSA's phone data collection, but it said the spying went far beyond what Congress authorized. It said the laws used by the government to justify the spying "have never been interpreted to authorize anything appoaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance" the NSA conducted.
"In light of the asserted national security interests at stake, we deem it prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape,'' the opinion written by Circuit Judge Gerald Lynch said.
"If Congress decides to authorize the collection of the data desired by the government under conditions identical to those now in place, the program will continue in the future under that authorization,'' the ruling said. "If Congress decides to institute a substantially modified program, the constitutional issues will certainly differ considerably from those currently raised.''
The ruling said the government does not even claim that the records it collected are relevant to any specific ongoing terrorism investigation, only that "there might at some future point be a need or desire to search them in connection with a hypothetical future inquiry."
The decision overturned a lower court ruling saying the surveillance is legal. But the appellate court declined to issue an injunction to halt the NSA surveillance, saying it would have little effect.
"This appellate court ruling is a historic breakthrough, because it shows the FISA court got it wrong, disastrously wrong, and will continue to get it wrong unless it is fundamentally reformed," Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) told VOA.
"For the FISA court to make such a serious, dangerous error shows the need for fundamental, far-reaching reform in the entire FISA system, including an advocate to protect constitutional liberties that were harmed and endangered by the FISA court," he added.
Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana) disagrees, telling VOA "Coupled with this (decision) is the proclamation by ISIS that they have a significant number of people embedded in America, and there are more terrorist attacks to come. So, watch out. This (bulk data collection) program helps us thwart those terrorist attacks. It has done so and we need to have it continue to do so."
Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) expects the high court to reverse the decision.
"I think the Supreme Court will reverse that," he told VOA. "Our ability to protect ourselves is to be able to have immediate access (to information), without having a delay to go through the court proceedings to get the phone records to see who has been talking to whom."
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Thursday that the Department of Justice is "reviewing that decision."
Lynch made the comment at a Senate budget hearing, adding that the collection was a "vital tool in our nationa lsecurity" and that she was not aware of any privacy violations under the revised program.
Mike Bowman contributed to this report from Capitol Hill, some material for this report came from Reuters.