- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2013

A federal judge said Monday that the NSA’s secret phone-snooping program violates Americans’ privacy rights, in a ruling that sets up a major legal and political hurdle for an Obama administration trying desperately to preserve the intelligence tool.

District Court Judge Richard J. Leon’s groundbreaking decision marks the first time a court has ruled against the program. It puts him in conflict with the secret court that usually oversees clandestine operations and has approved the collection of records on most phone calls made in the U.S.

But Judge Leon said James Madison, chief architect of the Bill of Rights, would be “aghast” at what the government is doing.

“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,” the judge wrote in a 68-page opinion. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”

The judge didn’t overturn the entire program but instead told the government to stop collecting and retaining the phone records of two plaintiffs who sued to challenge the NSA.

National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Continued Oversight of U.S. Government Surveillance Authorities" .      (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill ... more >

Judge Leon also stayed his own ruling to give the government a chance to file an appeal, saying he realized the big national security interests at stake.

Andrew C. Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said attorneys were reviewing the ruling, though he would not comment on the next step.

“We believe the program is constitutional, as previous judges have found,” Mr. Ames said.

Under the program, the National Security Agency collects the telephone numbers, times and durations of phone calls made in the U.S. and stores the data for five years. The government says it looks only into the phone metadata when it suspects someone could be involved in terrorism.

The phone records program, whose existence was leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden this year, has become a major issue in Washington, where Mr. Obama is desperately trying to preserve it against bipartisan attacks in Congress.

Mr. Snowden issued a statement through Glenn Greenwald, a reporter whose stories exposed the program, saying he was convinced the program wouldn’t survive a court challenge.

“Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many,” he said.

The ruling likely will strengthen critics’ argument, particularly because Judge Leon was appointed by a Republican president to the federal district court in Washington.

“This is not a left-wing liberal judge. This is one of Bush’s first appointees to the D.C. district. That’s a testament to where we are. I think it speaks volumes that [Judge Leon] wrote that opinion,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

Indeed, those on both the political right and left praised Judge Leon’s decision.

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