I was planning to do some analysis of the legality of the NSA’s phone records program, but Orin Kerr has already accomplished it. His posts are terrific and are essential reading:
In the latter post, Kerr analyzes whether the telephone companies violated the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2702. Section 2702(a)(3) prohibits phone companies from knowingly divulging customer records to any governmental entity. Kerr notes that the most relevant possible exception to this restriction is 18 U.S.C. 2702(c)(4), as amended by the Patriot Act renewal of 2006, which allows disclosure to “a governmental entity, if the provider, in good faith, believes that an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requires disclosure without delay of information relating to the emergency.” Kerr notes:
The language that passed as part of the Patriot Act in 2001 allowed disclosure only when “the provider reasonably believes that an emergency involving immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person justifies disclosure of the information.” This was the language in place from October 2001 until March 2006. Did the phone companies have such a belief under the 2001-06 language? I gather they had a reasonable belief of danger, but I don’t know of a reason to think that they had a reasonable belief of “immediate” danger. If this was a program ongoing for several years, then it’s hard to say that there was a continuing reasonable belief of immediate danger over that entire time.
Kerr also explains that the Patriot Act renewal earlier this year made a few tweaks to this exception:
The change expanded the exception to allow disclosure when there is a good faith belief instead of a reasonable belief, and when there was a danger instead of an “immediate” danger. I wouldn’t be surprised if the telephone companies were pushing the change in part out of concern for civil liability for their participation in the NSA call records program.”
Much more at Kerr’s posts.
UPDATE: Marty Lederman also has some excellent analysis that’s definitely worth reading.