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National security and privacy: Appeals court steps into debate over NSA surveillance program

FILE - In this May 6, 2004 file photo, Larry Klayman speaks in Melbourne, Fla. Activist attorney Larry Klayman won the first round in December, when U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, a Republican appointee, ruled that the NSA’s surveillance program likely runs afoul of the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches. The government appealed.  (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove, File)

FILE - In this May 6, 2004 file photo, Larry Klayman speaks in Melbourne, Fla. Activist attorney Larry Klayman won the first round in December, when U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, a Republican appointee, ruled that the NSA’s surveillance program likely runs afoul of the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches. The government appealed. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove, File)  (The Associated Press)

Three federal appeals judges are stepping into a debate over privacy rights and government surveillance, weighing whether the National Security Agency's phone data collection program is constitutional.

The Justice Department will tell the Republican-appointed appeals judges on Tuesday that collecting the phone data is of overriding and compelling importance to the nation's security.

The government is using a 35-year-old Supreme Court ruling on phone surveillance as the legal underpinning for gathering the phone data of millions of Americans.

In challenging the program, opponents are invoking a recent Supreme Court opinion restricting warrantless cellphone searches.

The three judges have generally come down on the government's side on national security issues.

Former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed the phone data collection effort a year and a half ago.