Judge rules NSA snooping 'likely' unconstitutional
WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Monday concluded that a National Security Agency program that collects enormous amounts of telephone data “likely” violates the Constitution, propelling a high-stakes fight toward the Supreme Court.
In an extraordinary 68-page decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington ordered the NSA to stop snooping on two specific individuals who had challenged the so-called “bulk telephony metadata” collection program. While Leon then put a stay on his order, pending a government appeal, his skepticism about the program's constitutional validity came through loud and clear.
“I believe that bulk telephony metadata collection almost certainly does violate a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Leon wrote, taking note of the “almost Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States.”
Appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2002, Leon further cautioned that the 21st-century surveillance technologies may have outstripped the decades-old legal precedents being used to justify them. The only way to resolve the dilemma spelled out in Leon's decision is for the Supreme Court to revisit the issues once the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit takes a crack at it.
“There is the very real prospect that the (surveillance) program will go on for as long as America is combating terrorism, which realistically could be forever!” Leon wrote.
In a twist, Leon said he had the authority to review whether the program is constitutionally suspect even though the data collection was approved by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“Where, as here, core individual constitutional rights are implicated by government action, Congress should not be able to cut off a citizen's right to judicial review of that government action simply because it intended the conduct to remain secret,” Leon wrote.
Larry Klayman, one of the individuals who challenged the NSA program, applauded the court's decision.
“This is the biggest decision ever in the history of government litigation,” Klayman said in an interview, adding that the district court's ruling highlights the problems with the surveillance court, which only hears arguments from government officials. “We have criminal behavior on behalf of the government, and the judge stepped in. And we thank him for that.”
The ruling sparked similar reactions from lawmakers deeply involved in the debate over NSA surveillance, including Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Both lawmakers are backing legislation that would end NSA's dragnet data collection programs.
“The ruling underscores what I have argued for years: The bulk collection of Americans' phone records conflicts with Americans' privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution and has failed to make us safer,” Udall said. “We can protect our national security without trampling our constitutional liberties.”
The decision on Monday sets up a fight over whether a 1979 Supreme Court precedent remains valid.
The 1979 ruling, in the case Smith v. Maryland, concluded that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the phone numbers they call. That ruling permitted police to install a “pen register” on a suspect's phone, recording numbers, without a specific warrant. As Leon noted, “The evolutions in the government's surveillance capabilities (and) citizens' phone habits” are “thoroughly unlike” circumstances in 1979.
Leon directed the NSA to “destroy any such metadata in its possession that was collected through the bulk collection program.” The National Security Agency deferred questions to the Justice Department, where officials stand by the programs.
“We've seen the opinion and are studying it,” said Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames. “We believe the program is constitutional, as previous judges have found.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- E-cigarettes cut cravings, study finds
- Boy with fake gun shot by officer dies
- Ohio dairy farmers cashing in on gas well boom
- Even before Ebola contained, U.S. looks to next health crisis
- Nevada speaker-elect steps down amid criticism
- Police code of conduct aims to curb unlawful seizures from motorists
- Graham rejects GOP Benghazi report as ‘garbage’
- Tension, anxiety mount in Ferguson as grand jury ruling awaited
- Letter that inspired Beat poet Kerouac discovered
- Obama defends executive action on illegals
- Tufts center study: It costs $2.6B to get drug to market