US court will not halt NSA phone spy program before ban

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A U.S. appeals court on Thursday refused to immediately halt the government's bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records during a "transition" period to a new federal scheme that bans the controversial anti-terrorism surveillance.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said it would not disturb Congress' decision to provide a 180-day period for an "orderly transition" to a new, targeted surveillance system from the sweeping National Security Agency program that the court found illegal on May 7.

"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," Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for a three-judge panel. "Under the circumstances, we will defer to that reasonable decision."

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US court will not halt NSA phone spy program before ban
NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is seen via live video link from Russia on a computer screen during a parliamentary hearing on the subject of 'Improving the protection of whistleblowers', on June 23, 2015, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, is being sought by Washington which has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) prepares to do a live interview with FOX News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) does a live interview with FOX News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: The U.S. Capitol is illuminated at dusk, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: Larry Klayman (C), of the political advocacy group Freedom Watch, holds a news conference with Charles Strange (L) and Mary Ann Strange on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Stranges, who joined the class action lawsuit, allege that their phones were tapped when they began questioning the circumstances around the death of their son, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2011. The DC Circuit Court held an oral argument over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: Larry Klayman (2R), of the political advocacy group Freedom Watch, ends a news conference with Charles Strange (2L) and Mary Ann Strange (C) on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Stranges, who joined the class action lawsuit, allege that their phones were tapped when they began questioning the circumstances around the death of their son, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2011. The DC Circuit Court held an oral argument over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) arrives in front of U.S. District Court to announce the filing of a class action lawsuit against the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and FBI Director James Comey. Paul said he filed the lawsuit to stop NSA surveillance of U.S. phone records because Obama has Òpublicly refused to stop a clear and continuing violation of the 4th amendment.Ó (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: (L -R) Freedom Watch representatives Brandon Wheatley, Dina James and Larry Klayman talk outside of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The DC Circuit Court held an oral argument over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
FILE - In this April 7, 2015 file photo, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. holds up his cell phone as he speaks before announcing the start of his presidential campaign, in Louisville, Ky. The Justice Department warned lawmakers that the National Security Agency (NSA) will have to wind down its bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the end of the week if Congress fails to reauthorize the Patriot Act. The Republican divisions over the issue was on stark display in the Senate on Wednesday as Paul, a candidate for president, stood on the floor and spoke at length about his opposition to NSA spying. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, speaks at George Washington University May 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security held a discussion on the state of cybersecurity threats to the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., ride back back to their offices following roll call votes on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday night, Nov. 18, 2014. Polar opposites on most issues, Cruz and Franken were in agreement when both voted "yes" on a bill to end the bulk collection of American phone records by the National Security Agency, although the measure failed 58-42. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, speaks at George Washington University May 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security held a discussion on the state of cybersecurity threats to the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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It was first disclosed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Thursday's decision rejected a request by the American Civil Liberties Union for a preliminary injunction to stop the program until the narrower scheme begins on Nov. 29.

Alex Abdo, an ACLU lawyer, said that while the group disagreed with the latest decision, "all Americans should celebrate" the imminent end to bulk collections.

"It will now be up to the district court to address to what extent the government must purge the call records it collected unlawfully," he said. "The government still needs to rein in other overreaching NSA spying programs."

The U.S. Department of Justice, which opposed an injunction, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lynch wrote for the 2nd Circuit in May that the old NSA program was not authorized under the USA Patriot Act, and violated Americans' privacy rights.

That program lapsed on June 1, but the next day Congress revived it for 180 days under the USA Freedom Act, which President Barack Obama quickly signed.

The law reined in the government's data collection authority and requires phone companies, not the NSA, to hold bulk phone records.

It also lets intelligence agencies make tightly focused searches of metadata, upon approval by the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In late June, that court said the NSA could temporarily resume bulk collections while the government moved to the new scheme.

The Patriot Act, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, gave the government broad tools to investigate terrorism.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union et al v. Clapper et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-42.

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