A US federal judge has, for the second time in as many years, called the phone data collection by the National Security Agency unconstitutional.
US District Judge Richard J. Leon of Washington Monday ordered the NSA to bring to a halt the spying program that he called an “astounding” and “unparalleled” example of dragnet surveillance.
Leon’s opinion forbade only the agency’s collection of data pertaining to two of the individual and business plaintiffs who lodged suit. He indicated that no appeal can resolve the issue of the legality of the program before it expires November 29.
Later on Monday, Justice Department officials demanded that Leon immediately stay his opinion pending appeal.
In a letter to Leon, Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and others asserted that even a limited injunction would require the NSA to end the program while bringing about requisite technical changes.
“That result is contrary to the judgment of Congress and the President that this important counter-terrorism intelligence program should end only after the current transition . . . to avoid creating an intelligence-collection gap that could place national security at risk,” Justice Department officials wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the plaintiffs in the case. The union deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said that Leon’s opinion puts into question the legality of any other types of open-ended government surveillance of millions of Americans.
“The government should now commit to destroying the call records that it collected illegally — not just its database of ‘raw’ data but any subsidiary databases that include query results,” Jaffer said. “It should also reconsider the lawfulness of other bulk surveillance programs that have not been officially acknowledged.”
Meanwhile, the NSA sent a memo to relevant committees in the US Congress Monday, saying that it is ready to terminate its collection of Americans’ domestic call records later this month.
The agency said that it would move to a more targeted system and that it "has successfully developed a technical architecture to support the new program."
Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation bringing an end to the spying agency’s indiscriminate gathering of US phone metadata.
The USA Freedom Act called for a six-month transition period after which the NSA could only have access to targeted data from telephone providers as long as it has judicial approval.
NSA has been under harsh criticism after its former contractor, Edward Snowden, released documents showing the agency has been spying both on Americans and nationals, including leaders, of other countries.