Washington (AFP) – A U.S. judge struck a first blow against the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records Monday, ruling it breaches citizens’ privacy to an “almost Orwellian” degree that is probably unconstitutional.
The scathing ruling by a federal judge in Washington was stayed pending appeal, but if upheld it could lead to the spy agency being barred from indiscriminately gathering metadata on millions of private calls.
While not a final judgment, the ruling put the administration on the back foot at the start of what will no doubt be a protracted series of legal challenges to the NSA’s global surveillance network.
And it was seized upon by fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden to support his case that he is a whistleblower exposing official overreach rather than a traitor endangering national security.
“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 Court Judge Richard Leon said.
Leon argued that American founding father James Madison, one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, would be “aghast” at the government’s “almost Orwellian” breach of citizens’ rights to privacy.
He also took aim at U.S. government claims that the scale of data-gathering was necessary to thwart terrorist plots.
“The government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature,” Leon wrote.
Contacted by AFP, the NSA refused to comment. The U.S. Justice Department said it was examining the ruling.
“We believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found,” a Justice Department spokesman said. “We have no further comment at this time.”
Two plaintiffs, Larry Klayman and Charles Strange, brought a case against President Barack Obama’s administration after Snowden revealed the vast scale of the NSA’s digital dragnet.
Documents provided by Snowden to the British daily The Guardian revealed that the NSA had compelled U.S. telecoms giant Verizon to provide agents with its clients’ call metadata.
Subsequent leaks from Snowden’s vast trove of classified documents suggest that other telephone and Internet providers have also provided private details on both U.S. and foreign clients.
Leon’s ruling would bar the U.S. government from continuing to siphon off metadata without judicial approval, but he did not issue an immediate injunction against the practice.