A US district court in New York has ruled in favor of the NSA collecting bulk "metadata" on people's phone records, days after a contradictory verdict from a different court. The Justice Department said it was "pleased."
US District Court Judge William Pauley III on Friday found that it was legal for the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect so-called metadata on phone usage by US citizens. He described the measure as a valuable tool in combating terrorism, dismissing a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"As the September 11th attacks demonstrate, the cost of missing such a thread can be horrific. Technology allowed al Qaeda to operate decentralized and plot international terrorist attacks remotely," Judge Pauley wrote.
"The bulk telephony metadata collection program represents the government's counter-punch: connecting fragmented and fleeting communications to reconstruct and eliminate al Qaeda's terror network," he said in a 54-page ruling.
"We are pleased with the decision," US Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said, after the first legal victory for US authorities on the issue of NSA surveillance.
Similar cases, contrasting rulings
Friday's decision stood in sharp contrast to a December 16 ruling from another federal judge in Washington, Richard Leon. He had judged that collecting and storing metadata - information on numbers dialed and the dates and durations of calls, but not audio from the phone calls - likely constituted a breach of the US Constitution.
Leon had cited probable incompatibility with the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing against unauthorized search and seizure. Judge Pauley on Friday said the constitutional protection against search and seizure was "fundamental, but not absolute."
Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden alleged that the agency had compelled telecommunications giant Verizon and other rival companies to routinely pass on telephone and Internet metadata for clients.
Judge Leon had said in his ruling that he had "serious doubts" about the efficacy of observing phone data when "conducting time-sensitive investigations involving imminent threats of terrorism."
Judge Pauley, meanwhile, wrote in the verdict published on Friday that there was "no evidence that the government has used any of the bulk telephony metadata it collected for any purpose other than investigating and disrupting terrorist attacks."
The issue is broadly expected to ultimately reach the US Supreme Court, a scenario that became more likely with Friday's new ruling.
US President Barack Obama is reviewing recommendations on proposed changes to US surveillance programs, one result of the allegations leveled by Snowden, and is expected to announce reforms next month.
msh/pfd (AFP, AP, dpa)