The secretive federal surveillance court has denied the National Security Agency’s (NSA) attempt to hold onto people’s phone records for longer than the law allows.
In an order released on Friday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the Justice Department’s attempt to authorize keeping the records beyond the current five-year legal limit “is simply unpersuasive.”
“The Court has not found any case law supporting the government’s broad assertion that its duty to preserve supersedes statutory or regulatory requirements,” Judge Reggie Walton wrote in the court’s decision.
Last month, the Obama administration asked the court to let it keep the phone records, called metadata, past the five-year limit. The Justice Department said that it needs to hold on to the records in order to deal with a handful of lawsuits from the ACLU, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and others challenging the agency’s surveillance program.
The spy agency said that it would keep the records “for non-analytic purposes” until the cases were finalized.
The government, the court declared, “makes no attempt to explain why it believes the records that are subject to destruction are relevant to the civil cases.”
“To sum up, the amended procedures would further infringe on the privacy interests of United States persons whose telephone records were acquired in vast numbers and retained by the government for five years to aid in national security investigations,” Walton wrote.
“The government seeks to retain these records, not for national security reasons, but because some of them may be relevant in civil litigation in which the destruction of those very same records is being requested.”
The court noted that the groups challenging the NSA’s program, however, “have expressed no desire to acquire the records.”
The NSA’s program to collect metadata about millions of Americans’ phone calls was the most controversial government effort revealed in documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.
President Obama has called for the program to be ended “as it currently exists,” and is weighing different proposals for reforming it.