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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs