Phone company fought NSA — and lost

A phone company challenged the government’s bulk collection of people’s phone records but was denied earlier this year, according to top-secret court documents declassified on Friday.

The company, whose name was redacted in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) documents, petitioned the court in January to “vacate, modify or affirm the current production order” in light of a December court ruling that determined the National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone records program was likely unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court “Judge [Richard] Leon’s Memorandum Opinion introduces, for the first time, a question about the legal validity of an order issued by this Court,” the unnamed company wrote in its January petition. “In light of Judge Leon’s Opinion, it is appropriate [redacted] inquire directly of the Court into the legal basis” for its order to hand over people’s call records.

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The petition was the first time a telephone company had directly challenged an order to hand over phone records in bulk.

However, its request was denied. The decision amounts to the FISC’s first formal rebuke of Leon's ruling against the NSA program.

In a March decision, FISC Judge Rosemary Collyer asserted that the company “provides no basis for vacating or modifying the production order,” and denied the company’s request.

Collyer added that the court ruling against the NSA’s program was “unpersuasive.”

The NSA program that was challenged requires phone companies to hand over bulk “metadata” about people’s phone calls, which includes the numbers they call as well as the duration and frequency of the calls. The program was revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden and has become one of the NSA’s most debated operations.

Critics on both sides of the aisle have worried that the program infringes on constitutional protections of privacy, though supporters have fought back. The program they say, helps connect the dots between terrorists and has been instrumental in protecting national security.

President Obama has called for an overhaul of the program so that the records stay in phone companies’ hands and are not handed over to the NSA except in individual cases.

Competing proposals are also making their way through Congress, through no single piece of legislation has garnered universal backing.