Pro-Snowden protesters in Washington DC. (AFP)
Washington, Dec. 17: A federal district judge ruled today that the National Security Agency programme that is systematically keeping records of all Americans’ phone calls most likely violates the Constitution.
He described its technology as “almost Orwellian” and suggested that James Madison would be “aghast” to learn that the government was encroaching on liberty in such a way.
The judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, ordered the government to stop collecting data on the personal calls of the two plaintiffs in the case and to destroy the records of their calling history.
But Judge Leon, appointed to the bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, stayed his injunction “in light of the significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues,” allowing the government time to appeal it, which he said could take at least six months.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analysing it without prior judicial approval,” Judge Leon wrote in a 68-page ruling.
“Surely, such a programme infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, said government lawyers were studying the decision, but he added: “We believe the programme is constitutional as previous judges have found.”
The case is the first in which a federal judge who is not on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorised the once-secret programme, has examined the bulk data collection on behalf of someone who is not a criminal defendant.
The Justice Department has said that 15 separate judges on the surveillance court have held on 35 occasions that the calling data programme is legal. It also marks the first successful legal challenge brought against the programme since it was revealed in June after leaks by the former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden.
In a statement from Moscow, where he has obtained temporary asylum, Snowden praised the ruling.
“I acted on my belief that the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts,” Snowden said in his statement.
It was distributed by Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who received leaked documents from Snowden and wrote the first article about the bulk data collection.
Brazil today said it is not considering granting asylum to Edward Snowden even after the former NSA contractor offered today to help investigate revelations that the NSA has spied on Brazilians and their President.