By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A civil liberties group is taking the unusual step of asking the Supreme Court to review a ruling by a secretive intelligence court that authorized government access to millions of Verizon Communications Inc <VZ.N> phone call records
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said it would file an emergency application at the high court on Monday. The court rarely grants such requests.
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 telecoms giant Verizon.
Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, later identified himself as the leaker and is currently on the run from the U.S. government. He faces a series of criminal charges for disclosing the full scope of U.S. domestic data-gathering activities.
EPIC is challenging the intelligence court's authority to authorize such a wide-ranging data-gathering operation. The government sought the records under Section 215 of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, which allows for access to "any tangible things" as part of any authorized investigation related to terrorism or intelligence activities.
The EPIC court filing is a long shot as the group is not following the traditional route for appealing a lower court decision. The group said in a statement it does not have that option as there is no other way for it to challenge the intelligence court's decision.
In the court filing, EPIC's lawyers say emergency review is warranted because the intelligence court "exceeded its statutory jurisdiction when it ordered production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation."
The intelligence court, set up by Congress in 1978 to help try to curb abuses in the intelligence community, operates in secret. Its 11 judges, appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts, are full-time federal district court judges who take on the task as an additional responsibility.
There is no adversarial system. The government is the only party.
Addressing whether EPIC had legal standing to intervene, its lawyers noted the court decision "implicates the privacy interests of all Verizon customers," of which the group is one.
EPIC is just one of several civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, that are taking legal action in response to the leaks by Snowden, who is believed to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, where he landed on June 23 from Hong Kong.
The United States has revoked Snowden's passport and wants him arrested on espionage charges.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)