NEW YORK – The U.S. government's interpretation of its authority under the Patriot Act is so broad that it could justify mass collection of financial, health and even library records of innocent Americans without their knowledge, a civil liberties lawyer warned Friday at a hearing on a lawsuit challenging a federal phone-tracking program.
"If you accept the government's theory here, you are creating a dramatic expansion of the government's investigative power," Jameel Jaffer, of the American Civil Liberties Union, told a judge in federal court in Manhattan.
A government lawyer, Stuart Delery, insisted that counterterrorism investigators wouldn't find most personal information useful. Analysis of phone records, however, has become an essential -- and legal -- tool to "find connections between known and unknown terrorists," he argued.
U.S. District Court Judge William H. Pauley reserved decision on an ACLU request to halt the National Security Agency surveillance programs pending the outcome of its lawsuit against President Barack Obama's administration.
The ACLU sued earlier this year after former NSA analyst Edward Snowden leaked details of the secret programs that critics say violate privacy rights. The NSA-run programs pick up millions of telephone and Internet records that are routed through American networks each day.
On Friday, The New York Times reported on a 2012 NSA document that outlined the agency's goals to broaden its surveillance practices. The five-page document, the Times reported, noted that current U.S. laws didn't sufficiently meet the NSA's needs, and it mentioned the agency's desire to combat cybersecurity attacks, strengthen its own decryption abilities and advance its ability to manipulate the data it collects.
Intelligence officials say they have helped disrupt dozens of terrorist attacks and target only foreign suspects outside the United States while taking close care not to look at the content of conversations or messages by American citizens.
The ACLU has asked the judge to declare the program unconstitutional, arguing that it exceeds the congressional authority provided by the Patriot Act, which Congress passed after Sept. 11, 2001, and reauthorized in 2005 and 2010. Obama has defended the program and said privacy must be balanced with security.
Jaffer argued Friday that to protect innocent Americans' constitutional rights, the courts should require the collection of phone data to be much more narrow and focused.
"You don't need all call records in order to do what the government says it wants to do," he said.
Delery countered that the phone record dragnet should be distinguished from ordinary forms of surveillance because it's designed to detect and disrupt ongoing terror plots.
"These investigations are different from ordinary criminal investigations," he said.
The judge questioned Delery about how much Congress knew about the phone-tracking programs when it voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act. He cited a brief filed on behalf of Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., that "vehemently disputes" that Congress intended to authorize the program challenged by the ACLU suit.
Delery insisted that the program was spelled out to lawmakers before they voted.
"The record establishes that oversight committees of both houses were briefed," he said.