NEW YORK - The heated debate over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of millions of Americans' telephone records fell squarely into the courts Friday, when a federal judge in Manhattan upheld the legality of the program and cited its need in the fight against terrorism just days after another federal judge concluded it was likely not constitutional.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley 3d and an opposing view this month by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington sets the stage for federal appeals courts to confront the delicate balance developed when the need to protect national security clashes with civil rights established in the Constitution.
Pauley concluded the program was a necessary extension of steps taken after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He said the program lets the government connect fragmented and fleeting communications and "represents the government's counter-punch" to the al-Qaeda terror network's use of technology to operate decentralized and plot international terrorist attacks remotely.
"This blunt tool only works because it collects everything," Pauley said. "The collection is broad, but the scope of counterterrorism investigations is unprecedented."
Pauley's decision contrasts with Leon's grant of a preliminary injunction against the collecting of phone records of two men who had challenged the program. The Washington jurist said the program likely violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on unreasonable search. The judge has since stayed the effect of his ruling, pending a government appeal.
Both cases now move to appeals courts for a conflict that some believe will be settled by the Supreme Court. The chances that the nation's top court will address it increase if the appeals courts reach conflicting opinions or if the current use of the program is declared illegal.
Pauley said the mass collection of phone data "significantly increases the NSA's capability to detect the faintest patterns left behind by individuals affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations. Armed with all the metadata, NSA can draw connections it might otherwise never be able to find."
He added: "As the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrate, the cost of missing such a threat can be horrific."
Pauley said the attacks "revealed, in the starkest terms, just how dangerous and interconnected the world is. While Americans depended on technology for the conveniences of modernity, al-Qaeda plotted in a seventh-century milieu to use that technology against us. It was a bold jujitsu. And it succeeded because conventional intelligence gathering could not detect diffuse filaments connecting al-Qaeda."
The judge said the NSA intercepted seven calls made by one of the Sept. 11 hijackers in San Diego prior to the attacks, but mistakenly concluded that he was overseas because it lacked the kind of information it can now collect.
Still, Pauley said such a program, if unchecked, "imperils the civil liberties of every citizen" and he noted the lively debate about the subject across the nation, in Congress, and at the White House.
"The question for this court is whether the government's bulk telephony metadata program is lawful. This court finds it is. But the question of whether that program should be conducted is for the other two coordinate branches of government to decide," he said.
A week ago, President Obama said there may be ways of changing the program so that it has sufficient oversight and transparency.
In ruling, Pauley cited the emergency of the program after 20 hijackers took over four planes in the 2001 attacks, flying two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field.
"The government learned from its mistake and adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world. It launched a number of counter-measures, including a bulk telephony metadata collection program - a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data," he said.
Pauley dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which promised to appeal.