The U.S. government need not turn over a secret surveillance court's orders or the names of phone companies helping it collect call records, because it might reveal methods needed to protect national security, a federal judge decided on Monday.
U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, California, rejected the Electronic Frontier Foundation's argument that the U.S. Department of Justice should turn over the materials, in the wake of unauthorized disclosures last year by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden.
The EFF noted that the government had already declassified hundreds of pages of other documents discussing data collection under the U.S. Patriot Act, including some that the data privacy advocacy group had requested. These declassifications came after Snowden's leaks had been revealed.
Rogers, though, said disclosing orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which handles federal requests for surveillance warrants, could "provide a roadmap" for targets of national security investigations to evade surveillance.
She also said the government's disclosure of "general" information about the call record collection program did not mitigate the "inherent risks to national security and government investigations" of revealing the phone companies' identities.
"Official confirmation of the existence of or general information about an intelligence program does not eliminate the dangers to national security of compelling disclosure of the program's details," she wrote.
The EFF had also argued that statements by people affiliated with the government, including a former member of a technology review panel who said "telephone companies like Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T" were required to turn over records to the NSA, justified the disclosures.
"We're disheartened that the court is allowing the government to keep the information secret," EFF staff lawyer Mark Rumold said in an interview. "It is quite likely that the government is still using the Patriot Act to obtain information, under different intelligence programs, in bulk."
The EFF will review whether to appeal, he added.
Rogers ruled in the EFF's favor on one issue, ordering the government to turn over a Jan. 4, 2010 memo discussing the interaction between the Patriot Act and the disclosure of information collected when compiling the census.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Snowden's leaks have sparked a broad debate over the government's authority to collect personal data without violating people's privacy.
On Monday, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released partially blacked-out versions of 38 documents relating to a now-discontinued NSA program to collect bulk electronic communications metadata.
The case is Electronic Frontier Foundation v. Department of Justice, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 11-05221.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by David Gregorio and Andrew Hay)