A federal judge said Monday that the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches but put his decision on hold, pending a near certain government appeal.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs Larry Klayman and Charles Strange, concluding that they were expected to prevail in their constitutional challenge.
Leon, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, said the two men are likely to be able to show that their privacy interests outweigh the government's interest in collecting the data. He added that means its massive collection program is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
"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 it and analyzing it without judicial approval," he said in his opinion. "Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment."
The collection program was disclosed by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, provoking a heated debate over civil liberties in the U.S. Barack Obama's administration has defended the program as a crucial tool against terrorism.
After the opinion was handed down Monday, Snowden praised the ruling in a statement obtained by The New York Times.
"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. "I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.'s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also celebrated Monday’s opinion, calling it “a strongly worded and carefully reasoned decision” showing how the “NSA’s call-tracking program can’t be squared with the Constitution.”
"We hope that Judge Leon’s thoughtful ruling will inform the larger conversation about the proper scope of government surveillance powers, especially the debate in the Congress,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer, who is part of the effort to litigate a similar legal challenge to the one at the center of Monday's opinion.
Also on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the suggestion that the United States could grant amnesty to Snowden if he turned over all the government documents in his possession, many of which have not yet been made public.
"Our position has not changed on that matter at all," Carney told reporters at a briefing in response to a question. "Mr. Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information, and he faces felony charges here in the United States. He should be returned to the United States as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process in our system."
Obama will meet executives from leading technology companies like Google and Apple on Tuesday to discuss, among other matters, the national-security and economic impact of the unauthorized intelligence disclosures by Snowden.
Regardless of the White House's position on Snowden, Leon in his decision called into question the efficacy of the NSA program.
In his 68-page, heavily footnoted opinion, he concluded that the government didn't cite a single instance in which the program "actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack."
"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," he added.
He said was staying his ruling, pending appeal, "in light of the significant national-security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues."
Documents leaked by Snowden have revealed details of widespread surveillance by the NSA and ignited a furor over the agency's spying.
Rick Ledgett, who is supervising the NSA task force doing a damage assessment of the leaks, said on the CBS program "60 Minutes" Sunday that it was "worth having a conversation about" granting Snowden asylum if he were to turn over all the information he had taken.
"My personal view is, yes, it's worth having a conversation about," Ledgett said. "I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high."
Al Jazeera and wire services