An appeals court ruled Wednesday that a National Security Agency (NSA) telephone dragnet program designed to collect data on millions of American citizens without warrants violates a law specially designed to prevent abuse of the government’s spying capabilities.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the NSA’s program may have violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The program, the three-judge panel ruled, may have also been unconstitutional.
The ruling focused on the conviction of four individuals who alleged evidence used against them in their case was gathered through the program. The Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling noted that the way in which the federal government obtained information through the warrantless program was indeed illegal but rejected overturning their convictions, noting that very little evidence from the program was actually used in their prosecution.
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“This ruling, which confirms what we have always known, is a victory for our privacy rights,” the ACLU tweeted.
BREAKING: A federal appeals court just ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal.
This ruling, which confirms what we have always known, is a victory for our privacy rights.
— ACLU (@ACLU) September 2, 2020
Judge Marsha Berzon, who wrote the opinion of the court, made numerous citations to the leaks of Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who became a whistleblower by exposing the program’s existence in 2013. Prior to Snowden leaking information to The Guardian, the NSA and other government agencies vociferously denied the existence of a broad program to collect data on U.S. citizens.
“Snowden’s disclosure of the metadata program prompted significant public debate over the appropriate scope of government surveillance,” Berzon wrote, noting that the revelation prompted Congress to pass a bill in 2015 formally ending the program.
Snowden fled to Russia to avoid federal prosecution for revealing the controversial program. He continues to face espionage charges in the U.S., but in 2019 expressed a desire to someday return to his home country.
Upon learning the news that the Ninth Circuit Court had ruled against the program he had exposed, Snowden posted a tweet demonstrating a modest sense of vindication.
“Seven years ago, as the news declared I was being charged as a criminal for speaking the truth, I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA’s activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them,” Snowden wrote. “And yet that day has arrived.”
In addition to a number of progressive organizations and voices in support of Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald also noted that a number of right-wing voices were also calling for him to receive a reprieve of some kind for exposing the NSA program, including Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie, both Republicans from Kentucky, as well as from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida).
“Edward @Snowden deserves a pardon from President [Donald Trump],” the congressman wrote.
From the @ACLU to @RandPaul, from @FreedomofPress and EU Parliamentarians to @RepThomasMassie and @RepMattGaetz, a pardon for @Snowden now has support across an unusually wide ideological spectrum: https://t.co/8XTI7T4Rip
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) September 3, 2020
Trump has signaled in the past that he is considering issuing a pardon for the whistleblower.
“Eventually, I realized the U.S. government had stopped caring about what they should do, and instead were pursuing, as aggressively as possible, what they could do,” he said. “And this meant every time you made a phone call, the NSA literally got a copy of it delivered to them the next day.”
He further elaborated in the interview that the main lesson from his experience was that democratic rights in the United States weren’t — and still aren’t — as strong as some people perceive them to be.
“These revelations were never about surveillance. Surveillance was the mechanism, it was the grounds for discussion. But the actual topic that was coming into conflict was democracy,” he said.