Federal Court Rules NSA Program is Illegal, Changing Political Landscape


In early May, a Federal Appeals Court determined that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) practice of collecting telephone metadata is illegal under the Patriot Act. The NSA was collecting millions of phone records starting shortly after September 11, 2001. The government argued that they were legally conducting these activities under a provision of the Patriot Act that expires in June.

NSA’s program gathers bulk telephone records and searches the database for telephone numbers and other information that are associated with terrorist organizations. It does not include the content of the telephone conversations, but it does include the number called, the number where the call originated, and the length of the phone call. This program was one of the government’s internal activities that was discovered when Edward Snowden leaked governmental records in June 2013.

The court found that the activities that the NSA was conducting are not legal under the current version of the Patriot Act, although they may have been legal previously. The court noted that the “sheer volume of the information sought [by the NSA] is staggering.” The court specifically wanted to allow Congress to debate the issue more because of the severe impact that their decision could have on national security. They sent the case back down to a lower court for further proceedings.

The Decision Affects 2016 Politics

The split between Democrats and Republicans about the ruling will affect whether the Patriot Act will be approved again in June, but it is also have a wider ranging affect. It will affect the candidates in the upcoming Presidential election as well. The following is a quick overview of the key political players’ views on the decision.

• Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator has been outspoken about his support for the NSA and the program. In fact, he defended the program on the Senate floor shortly after the court decision went public.
• Rand Paul. Paul had nothing but praise for the decision, calling it a victory for “lovers of liberty.” He actually filed a similar lawsuit fighting against the program over a year ago. Paul would love to see this case go to the Supreme Court.
• Jeb Bush. In the past, Jeb has been a supporter of the program, but he has not voiced a specific opinion in response to the federal decision. Nonetheless, he did give a statement that recognized that information gathering is important for the fight against terrorism.
• Chris Christie. Christie, New Jersey’s Governor, supports the program and has urged Congress to extend the program. He has also specifically warned that Congress should not cut back these types of programs because they are important in the war against terror.
• Ted Cruz. Cruz has supported the decision, stating that the NSA “went too far” in their database collection. He has also proposed what he calls the USA Freedom Act, which would reform the NSA and end the surveillance program. Instead, the telephone companies would have more control over the phone records under the proposed Act.
• Lindsey Graham. Graham, a South Carolina Senator, has not specifically commented on the decision, but he has previously stated that he hopes that the NSA policies remain intact. He has pointed out that the decision is not yet binding because of the high likelihood of an appeal.
• Hillary Clinton. Clinton has not commented specifically on the decision either. She has endorsed the USA Freedom Act via Tweet, however.
• Bernie Sanders. Sanders has Tweeted, “the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner.” He thinks that the NSA needs to be scaled back to balance security and personal freedoms.
• Martin O’Malley. O’Malley, the governor of Maryland, hasn’t issued a statement about the decision. However, he has expressed some of the same concerns that Bernie Sanders has voiced—the need for balance between national security and personal freedoms.

Several other key players have not yet voiced an opinion about the decision. These other players include:

• Ben Carson (critical in the past)
• Mike Huckabee (critical in the past)
• Rick Perry (critical in the past)
• Governor Scott Walker
• Carly Fiorina

This decision will affect the future of the Patriot Act and whether something like the USA Freedom Act develops. It seems like the decision will also be a point of debate in the upcoming Presidential election.