By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would not review a ruling by the secretive intelligence court that gave the government access to records kept by Verizon Communications Inc on millions of telephone calls.
The long-shot case was brought to the high court by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public interest research organization. It was the first time the high-profile issue has come before the justices since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began in June to leak secret documents detailing American surveillance programs.
The NSA used records like those provided by Verizon as part of the spy agency's counterterrorism surveillance activities.
The court rejected the case in a one-sentence order.
The Obama administration argued in papers presented to the court that under existing law, only the U.S. government or Verizon itself could challenge a ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's president, said in a statement that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act makes it difficult to challenge the intelligence court's decisions.
"The surveillance order was clearly unlawful," he said.
The intelligence court's activities received widespread public attention in June when the British-based Guardian newspaper published the order that gave permission for the U.S. government to access data of telecommunications giant Verizon.
Snowden is in Russia, where he was granted asylum in August for at least a year. He faces criminal charges in the United States stemming from his disclosures.
The Supreme Court case is unrelated to several other challenges to the same program, including one pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
A hearing in that case is scheduled for Friday.
ACLU attorney Alex Abdo said the Supreme Court's action in the EPIC case had little bearing on the ongoing litigation in lower courts, where judges "will have to grapple with the merits of the NSA's call-tracking program."
EPIC's petition bypassed the usual appeals process, which is why it came before the Supreme Court so quickly.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
The case is In re: Electronic Privacy Information Center, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-58.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)