NSA mass surveillance 'illegal', rules US federal court

Landmark ruling hailed as 'huge step' for individual Americans' rights, but the fight is far from over

NSA desk
(Image credit: AFP/Getty Images)

The National Security Agency's surveillance programme has been ruled illegal by a US federal court, in a significant blow to the White House and intelligence agencies.

The landmark ruling will not put an immediate end to the programme, but it does leave its future in doubt, says the Daily Telegraph. Congress is expected to vote on a bill which would end the NSA's collection of bulk data next week, reinforcing the court's decision.

The government is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the surveillance programme is necessary for counter terrorism and national security. Congress is also free to pass a new law which explicitly allows the surveillance to continue, but such a move would likely be met with bipartisan resistance.

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The spying was exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, and he revealed that the agency had collected data from millions of Americans, as well as foreign diplomats. The leaks caused international outcry, but Washington insisted that the surveillance programme was fully authorised.

Critics have long argued that the programme is illegal and a misinterpretation of the Patriot Act, the piece of legislation pushed through by the Bush government in the wake of 9/11.

The White House has declined to comment on the blow to the NSA's existing legal authority, but stressed that it supported an overhaul of the programme, The Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, critics of the NSA were quick to hail the ruling a major victory for civil liberties. "This ruling should end any debate about the lawfulness of the call records programme," said Jameel Jaffer deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which led the initial legal challenge.

Leading senate critic Ron Wyden agreed, and called on President Barack Obama to end mass surveillance immediately. "This is a huge step for individual Americans' rights," he said. "Now that this program is finally being examined in the sunlight, the executive branch's claims about its legality and effectiveness are crumbling.”

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