The secretive federal court overseeing U.S. spying operations granted the final order on Friday allowing the National Security Agency to collect millions of Americans’ phone records.
When the existing order runs out on Nov. 29, legislation passed by Congress earlier this summer will go into effect, killing the NSA’s controversial phone records program.
In its ruling, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court declared that the continued collection by the NSA violates neither the intelligence reform bill passed earlier this summer nor the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines Americans' privacy rights.
In doing so, the court allowed the NSA to continue its bulk collection of Americans’ “metadata” — which includes the numbers people dial in a phone call, the length of the call and when it took place — for another three months. Metadata does not include the actual contents of someone’s conversation.
The order is the second and final permission slip the intelligence court will hand to the government under a six-month interim period that Congress allowed before the program ends.
On Nov. 29, the NSA will be forced to halt the collection of Americans’ records and shift to a new system in which the spy agency obtains a court order before searching private phone companies’ records for a narrower set of suspects’ records.
That new plan is the result of a reform bill that passed through Congress earlier in the summer with the support of the White House.
In its announcement of the new court approval on Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reaffirmed that agents will also no longer be allowed to search through previously collected records after Nov. 29. However, the agency is planning to seek court approval to allow technical staffers to access that storehouse of old records for another three months, it said, “solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced” under the new format.
Additionally, the intelligence office maintained it would retain the phone records purely for the purposes of an ongoing legal battle over the program.
That data “will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the [records] upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations,” the ODNI said.
Friday’s court order came hours after a top appeals court dismissed a preliminary injunction against the NSA’s controversial spying.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined to rule on the merits of the data collection, but nonetheless tossed out a lower court ruling finding the program likely unconstitutional. The lawyers and activists who brought the case lacked sufficient standing to sue and receive the injunction, the court said.