Judge: NSA phone surveillance program likely unconstitutional

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon says the NSA's metadata collection is "almost Orwellian" in scope

Topics: Judge Richard Leon, NSA, metadata, Mark Udall, Terrorism, Privacy, ,

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon delivered a serious legal blow to the NSA’s metadata collection program, ruling that it quite likely violates the Fourth Amendment and expressing doubt over whether the program is as vital to national security as the government has claimed.

“Given the limited record before me at this point in the litigation – most notably, the utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics – I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism,” Leon wrote.

Beyond questioning the program’s efficacy, Leon also doubted its constitutionality, writing, “Plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of showing that their privacy interests outweigh the government’s interest in collecting and analyzing bulk telephony metadata, and therefore the NSA’s bulk collection program is indeed an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.” He called the program “almost Orwellian” in scope.

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In a ruling likely to influence other federal courts hearing similar arguments from the ACLU, Leon wrote that the Guardian’s disclosure of the NSA’s bulk telephone records collection means that citizens now have standing to challenge it in court, since they can demonstrate for the first time that the government is collecting their phone data.

“The government asks me to find that plaintiffs lack standing based on the theoretical possibility that NSA has collected a universe of metadata so incomplete that the program could not possibly serve its putative function,” Leon wrote. “Candor of this type defies common sense and does not exactly inspire confidence!”

Senator Mark Udall, a leading critic of the dragnet collection, welcomed the judgment. “The ruling underscores what I have argued for years: [that] the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records conflicts with Americans’ privacy rights under the US constitution and has failed to make us safer,” said Udall, a Democrat.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

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