The collection of telephone metadata by US intelligence services “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized,” a federal appeals court has ruled in a major blow to the National Security Agency.

On Thursday, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the American Civil Liberties Union can sue the director of national intelligence over the NSA’s bulk collection program, reversing a ruling handed down more than a year earlier.

A district court judge had previously dismissed a lawsuit filed by the ACLU days after unauthorized disclosures attributed to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency has regularly collected records of phone calls of millions of Americans. The ACLU appealed and its suit has been remanded back to the district court.

Contrary to the government’s arguments, the appeals court said that the metadata collection was not authorized, pursuant to Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

“Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans,” Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for the majority opinion. “Perhaps such a contraction is required by national security needs in the face of the dangers of contemporary domestic and international terrorism. But we would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language. There is no evidence of such a debate in the legislative history of § 215, and the language of the statute, on its face, is not naturally read as permitting investigative agencies, on the approval of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court], to do any more than obtain the sorts of information routinely acquired in the course of criminal investigations of ‘money laundering [and] drug dealing.”

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