News / USA

    US Judge: NSA Phone Data Collection Likely Unconstitutional

    An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.
    An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.
    Reuters
    The U.S. government's gathering of Americans' phone records is likely unlawful, a judge ruled on Monday, raising “serious doubts” about the value of the National Security Agency's so-called metadata counter terrorism program.
     
    “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,”  U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush in 2002, wrote in a 68-page ruling.
     
    The U.S. Department of Justice said it was reviewing the ruling in a case brought by Larry Klayman, a conservative lawyer, and Charles Strange, described in court documents as the father of a cryptologist technician for the NSA who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011. The judge ordered the government to stop collecting data about the two plaintiffs, who were Verizon Communications Inc customers. Verizon declined comment.
     
    “We believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found,” Department of Justice spokesman Andrew Ames said in a statement.
     
    Leon suspended enforcement of his injunction against the program “in light of the significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues” pending an expected appeal by the government. A U.S. official said an appeal was likely.
     
    Leon expressed skepticism of the program's value, writing that the government could not cite a single instance in which the bulk data actually stopped an imminent 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 wrote.
     
    That is important, he added, because for the program to be constitutional, the government must show its effectiveness outweighs privacy interests.
     
    Leaks
     
    Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the massive phone record collection to U.S. and British media in June. Documents provided by Snowden showed that a U.S. surveillance court had secretly approved the collection of millions of raw daily phone records in America, such as the length of calls and the numbers that are dialed.
     
    Snowden, in a statement sent by journalist Glenn Greenwald, applauded the ruling.
     
    “I acted on my belief that the NSA'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,” he said. “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.”
     
    In its defense, the NSA says the data collected are key to spotting possible terrorism plots and do not include the recording of actual phone conversations. Judge Leon wrote, however, that the program likely violated Americans' right to be free of unreasonable searches.
     
    Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of both NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency, said the metadata made a contribution to weaving the “tapestry of intelligence” and that judges “are not really in a good position to judge the merits of intelligence collection programs.”
     
    An Obama administration official said that on 35 occasions in the past, 15 separate judges assigned to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court had declared bulk communications of telephone metadata lawful.
     
    Judge Leon has issued headline-making rulings before. In 2011 he blocked cigarette-warning labels that showed graphic images such as a man with a hole in his throat, saying they were unlawful compelled speech, and this year he ruled that the Federal Reserve ignored the intent of Congress in a case about debit card swipe fees.
     
    Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit group in Washington, said the ruling “means that the NSA bulk collection program is skating on thin constitutional ice.”
     
    In defending the data collection, U.S. Justice Department lawyers have relied in part on a 1979 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that said people have little privacy interest when it comes to records held by a third party such as a phone company.
     
    Leon wrote that the latest circumstances were different.
     
    “The government, in its understandable zeal to protect our homeland, has crafted a counter terrorism program with respect to telephone metadata that strikes the balance based in large part on a 34-year-old Supreme Court precedent, the relevance of which has been eclipsed by technological advances and a cell phone-centric lifestyle heretofore inconceivable,” he wrote.
     
    Greenwald, a former columnist for The Guardian who wrote about the metadata collection program based on documents leaked to him by Snowden, praised the court ruling.
     
    “This is a huge vindication for Edward Snowden and our reporting. Snowden came forward precisely because he knew that the NSA was secretly violating the constitutional rights of his fellow citizens, and a federal court ruled today that this is exactly what has been happening,” Greenwald said in an email.
     
    A committee of experts appointed by the Obama administration to review NSA activities is expected to recommend that the spy agency give up collection of masses of metadata and instead require telephone companies to hold onto it so it can be searched. But intelligence officials and the phone companies themselves are said to oppose such a plan.

    You May Like

    US Leaders Who Served in Vietnam War Look Back and Ahead

    In New York Times opinion piece, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Kerrey say as US strengthens relations with Vietnam, it is important to remember lessons learned from war

    Who Are US Allies in Fight Against Islamic State?

    There is little but opportunism keeping coalition together analysts warn — SDFs Arab militias are not united even among themselves, frequently squabble and don’t share Kurds' vision for post-Assad Syria

    Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap

    Effective interaction with local populations part of everyday curriculum at Monterey, California, Defense Language Institute

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora