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The National Security Administration’s sweeping program to snoop on Americans’ phone records was illegal and possibly unconstitutional – and there’s no evidence it led to the arrests of any terrorism suspects – a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
In its ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the NSA broke the law by collecting “phone metadata,” or bulk records of Americans’ phone-call history. The court upheld the convictions of four Somali immigrants who were charged with fundraising for terrorists, however, concluding that the NSA’s phone-record collection was ultimately not relevant to their convictions.
The NSA’s program to collect phone records was first brought to light by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Amid public outrage following the revelation, the agency defended the program by claiming it had helped thwart terrorist attacks.
But the NSA could point to only one example: the case of Basaalay Moalin. On Wednesday, the appeals court ruled that not only was the collection of Moalin’s phone records illegal, but it was ultimately irrelevant to the conviction.
In other words, there is zero evidence the NSA’s phone-records program stopped a terrorist attack, contradicting the public statements of US intelligence officials following Snowden’s revelation, Judge Marsha Berzon said in the ruling.
“To the extent the public statements of government officials created a contrary impression, that impression is inconsistent with the contents of the classified record,” she wrote.
An NSA representative declined to comment when reached by Business Insider.
The NSA’s program of collecting bulk metadata was discontinued in 2015 when Congress passed the USA Freedom Act. Under the law, bulk phone records would still be kept by private phone companies but could be obtained by investigators only with a judge’s permission. The NSA reportedly stopped pursuing phone metadata entirely by 2018.
Moalin, the Somali immigrant at the center of the case, will remain in prison, where he is serving an 18-year sentence. Berzon said in her ruling that even if the NSA hadn’t illegally obtained Moalin’s phone records, it wouldn’t have helped his case.
Berzon’s ruling – which repeatedly mentioned Snowden’s role in exposing the NSA practice – emphasized that the NSA broke the law in its surveillance of millions of Americans.
“Here the NSA collected Moalin’s (and millions of other Americans’) telephony metadata on an ongoing, daily basis for years,” she wrote. “The collection of millions of other people’s telephony metadata, and the ability to aggregate and analyze it, makes the collection of Moalin’s own metadata considerably more revealing.”