The National Security Agency received its most significant legal setback since the disclosures prompted by a former contractor, Edward Snowden, when a federal judge ruled on Monday that its bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records is likely to violate the US constitution.
Judge Richard Leon declared that the mass collection of so-called metadata probably violates the fourth amendment, relating to unreasonable searches and seizures, and is “almost Orwellian” in its scope.
He also expressed doubt about the central rationale for the program cited by the NSA: that it is necessary for preventing terrorist attacks. “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack,” wrote Leon, a US district judge in the District of Columbia.
“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, an appointee of George W Bush, granted a preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs Larry Klayman and Charles Strange, concluding that their constitutional challenge was likely to be successful. In what was the only comfort to the NSA in a stinging judgment, he put the ruling on hold, pending an appeal by the government.
But Leon’s opinion contained stern and repeated warnings that he was inclined to rule that the metadata collection performed by the NSA – and defended vigorously by the NSA director Keith Alexander on CBS on Sunday night – was unconstitutional.