NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union cannot stop bulk collection of its phone records before a more limited collection system is put in place next month, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan rejected the civil rights group's effort to put an immediate halt to the National Security Agency program that enabled the government to collect Americans' landline calling records in bulk.
A three-judge panel said it concluded that Congress intended for data collection to continue during a six-month transition period before a new law takes effect.
In May, the appeals court struck down the NSA phone record collection program, finding Congress never authorized it. But it also asked Congress to balance national security and privacy interests as it decided how to proceed in collecting information to protect against terrorism.
Congress then approved a more limited collection method due to take effect Nov. 29.
"An abrupt end to the program would be contrary to the public interest in effective surveillance of terrorist threats, and Congress thus provided a 180-day transition period," the 2nd Circuit said in an opinion written by Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch. "Under the circumstances, we will defer to that reasonable decision."
In a news release, ACLU attorney Alex Abdo said the group disagreed with the ruling.
But he noted that the bulk collection of Americans' call records will end in a few weeks. "All Americans should celebrate that fact," he said.
Abdo said a lower-court judge will now be tasked with deciding to what extent the government must purge the call records it has collected.
The NSA's collection of phone records — including times, dates and numbers but not content — was the most controversial program among many disclosed in 2013 by former NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden.
Some NSA officials opposed the program, and independent evaluations have found it of limited value as a counterterrorism tool. Snowden, who flew to Moscow two years ago after revealing information about the agency's eavesdropping, remains exiled in Russia.