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Top-secret court renews NSA snooping at critical point

By Evan Perez, CNN Justice Reporter
updated 1:21 PM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The national security program collects electronic data in bulk
  • The special court has periodically renewed NSA authority over several years
  • But this decision is the first time since conflicting court rulings were issued
  • One said the data collection appeared unlawful, other said it was OK

(CNN) -- The top-secret federal court that oversees government surveillance on Friday reauthorized the National Security Agency's program that collects data on nearly every phone call in the United States.

The three-month renewal by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is the first since two conflicting court opinions last month on the legality of the program.

Revealed publicly in leaks last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the program is at the center of the surveillance debate in the United States.

Critics say it violates privacy rights of Americans whose data is collected even though there isn't any suspicion that they pose a security threat.

The NSA and its supporters say the bulk collection authority is crucial to uncovering potential terrorists who haven't yet come to the attention of national security officials.

The telephone data program, covered under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, has been authorized 36 times over the past seven years, the nation's top intelligence official said on Friday.

President Barack Obama said recently that he is contemplating making modest changes following an independent review of the initiative.

One possible change would remove the electronic surveillance effort from the NSA but requiring telecommunications companies, or perhaps a new quasi-government agency, to collect the data.

"The intelligence community continues to be open to modifications to this program that would provide additional privacy and civil liberty protections while still maintaining its operational benefits," Shawn Turner, spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said.

A federal judge in Washington last month called the program almost "Orwellian" and said it was likely unconstitutional. Days later another federal judge in New York, in a separate challenge to the program, said it was lawful.

The Justice Department on Friday filed an appeal of the Washington ruling. The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the New York suit, is appealing that decision.

Split decisions will likely set the stage for legal wrangling over the course of the coming year that could ultimately result in a Supreme Court case.

NSA won't say if it's 'spying' on Congress

CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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