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 / Updated  / Source: CNBC.com
By Pete Williams

A federal appeals court ruled against the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone call information on Thursday, completely rejecting the government’s legal justification for the program.

A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York unanimously found that Congress has not given the NSA approval for storing massive amounts of data so that it can be searched later.

The court said federal law permits gathering information only when there's something specific to investigate. By contrast, today's ruling says, the government is storing huge amounts of data so that it can be searched later when the need arises.

"Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans," the ruling said.

Maybe such a program is needed to fight terrorism, the court said. But if so, "such a monumental shift in our approach to combating terrorism requires a clear signal from Congress."

The court declined, however, to order the government to stop the program. It sent the issue back to a lower court, in view of the fact that Congress is now debating what to do about bulk telephone data collection.

"This is a monumental decision for all lovers of liberty," said Senator Rand Paul in a statement. "I commend the federal courts for upholding our Constitution and protecting our Fourth Amendment rights. While this is a step in the right direction, it is now up to the Supreme Court to strike down the NSA's illegal spying program."

If Congress votes to let the NSA program continue -- or votes to have the phone companies, not the government, store the data -- then the lower court can get to an issue the appeals court today left untouched: whether such a program, even if authorized by Congress, would be unconstitutional.

Other politicians met the decision with mixed reactions on Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid urged lawmakers to back the USA Freedom Act, taking particular aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposes the measure. That proposed legislation would make the process of bulk data collection the responsibility of companies, and not the NSA.

“In light of today’s court ruling finding NSA bulk data collection practices illegal, Senator McConnell should commit to holding a vote on the bipartisan USA Freedom Act reforming the NSA’s spying practices before the act authorizing them expires on June 1,” Reid said in a statement. “Bipartisan reform of the NSA’s bulk data collection practices is on the table.”

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes said in a statement that he thinks the NSA data collection program is constitutional.

“I believe the NSA bulk telephone metadata program to be constitutional, authorized by Congress, and subject to multiple layers of oversight from all three branches of government,” Nunes said. “In light of today’s ruling, I look forward to seeing further consideration of this matter by the courts.”