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A federal judge ruled on Friday that the National Security Agency's bulk collection of millions of Americans' telephone and Internet records is legal and a critical component of the country's effort to combat the threat of terrorism.
The decision by U.S. District Judge William Pauley contrasts with a ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon and increases the likelihood that the issue will go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leon had granted a preliminary injunction against the collecting of phone records, saying the program likely violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on unreasonable search.
The NSA-run programs pick up millions of telephone and Internet records that are routed through American networks each day.
In the 54-page opinion issued in New York, Pauley said the sweeping program "represents the government's counter-punch" to eliminate al-Qaeda's terror network by connecting fragmented and fleeting communications.
"There is no evidence that the Government has used any of the bulk telephony metadata it collected for any purpose other than investigating and disrupting terrorist attacks," he wrote.
The judge further maintained that the program, which sucks up vast amounts of data, is subject to executive and congressional oversight as well as monitoring by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
"We are pleased with the decision," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.
In issuing the ruling, Pauley dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued after former NSA analyst Edward Snowden leaked details of the secret programs that critics say violate privacy rights.
"We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government's surveillance and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections," Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director said in a statement.
In hearings last month in New York, an ACLU lawyer had argued that the government's interpretation of its authority under the Patriot Act was so broad that it could justify the mass collection of financial, health and even library records of innocent Americans without their knowledge. A government lawyer had countered that counterterrorism investigators wouldn't find most personal information useful.
The judge acknowledged that the data collection system is far-reaching, and "vacuums up information about virtually every telephone call, to, from or within the United States.
"This blunt tool only works because it collects everything," the judge wrote. "Such a program if unchecked, imperils the civil liberties of the every citizen."
While acknowledging this "natural tension" between protecting the nation and preserving civil liberty, Pauley said the system sweeps up huge quantities of data "by design" and could have helped investigators connect the dots before the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks
"The government learned from its mistake and adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world. It launched a number of counter-measures, including a bulk telephony metadata collection program — a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data," he said.
He also found that the right to be free from search and seizures "is fundamental, but not absolute."
"Every day, people voluntarily surrender personal and seemingly-private information to transnational corporations, which exploit that data for profit," Pauley wrote in . Few think twice about it, even though it is far more intrusive than bulk telephony metadata collection.
Contributing: Associated Press