NEW YORK - A federal judge in New York has ruled that a massive federal phone-tracking program is legal
U.S. District Judge William Pauley issued the decision Friday. He says the program "represents the government's counter-punch" to eliminate al Qaeda's terror network by connecting fragmented and fleeting communications.
In ruling, the judge noted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and how the phone data-collection system could have helped investigators connect the dots before the attacks occurred.
He says the government learned from its mistake and "adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world." He said the data-collection program was part of the adjustment.
He dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued earlier this year after former NSA analyst Edward Snowden leaked details of the secret programs that critics say violate privacy rights. The NSA-run programs pick up millions of telephone and Internet records that are routed through American networks each day.
An ACLU lawyer had argued that the government's interpretation of its authority under the Patriot Act was so broad that it could justify the mass collection of financial, health and even library records of innocent Americans without their knowledge.
A government lawyer had countered that counterterrorism investigators wouldn't find most personal information useful.
"We are pleased with the decision," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said today.
ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said he intends to appeal.
"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relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government's surveillance and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections," Jaffer said in a statement.
ACLU v. Clapper (Memorandum and Order)
Earlier this month U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled in a suit brought against Verizon that the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches. The judge put his decision on hold pending a near-certain government appeal.
In his 68-page, heavily-footnoted opinion, Leon wrote that, despite the government's defense of sweeping electronic surveillance as a crucial tool against terrorism, there was not a single instance in which the NSA program "actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.
"I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism," he added.
Snowden's disclosures about the NSA's programs provoked a heated debate over civil liberties.
In a video message to Britain's Channel 4 on Christmas, Snowden -- who fled the United States and is currently in Russia -- said he believed the debate sparked by his revelations could ultimately result in the end of the NSA program.
In response to today's ruling, Rep. Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterintelligence & Terrorism, called Pauley's decision "a victory for the patriotic men and women of the NSA. More importantly, it preserves a vital weapon for the United States in our war against international terrorism."
King added, "I would hope that Judge Pauley's opinion will lessen at least some of the adulation for Edward Snowden, as well as the rabid anti-NSA hysteria which has become so pervasive."
Last week the White House released a preliminary report from a task force created in the wake of the Snowden leaks, suggesting far-reaching changes to the way the government collects and analyzes communications may be in store.