Judge calls for NSA to halt phone records program

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A federal judge on Monday called for the Obama administration to immediately halt its controversial collection of Americans’ phone records, mere days before the contested program is set to end.

In his ruling, Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia doubled down on his assertion that the National Security Agency (NSA) program “likely violates the Constitution” and warned that “the loss of constitutional freedoms for even one day is a significant harm.”

Monday’s ruling comes nearly two years after he initially called the NSA program “almost Orwellian,” and slightly less than three weeks before it is scheduled to end. 

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As such, the decision “is perhaps the last chapter in the judiciary’s evaluation of this particular program’s compatibility with the Constitution,” he wrote.

“It will not, however, be the last chapter in the ongoing struggle to balance privacy rights and national security interests under our Constitution in an age of evolving technological wizardry.”

Ultimately, the legal process makes it unlikely that the NSA will have to reverse course before the program is set to end later this month.

But civil liberties advocates nonetheless greeted the decision as a major victory that could be used to spur additional legal takedowns of U.S. spying programs.

The NSA program collects “metadata” about millions of Americans’ phone records without a warrant. The metadata include the numbers dialed in a call, when the calls occurred and how long the call lasted, but not the actual content of people’s conversations.

The program was revealed to the public by Edward Snowden, and burst to the fore during a congressional battle over government surveillance earlier this year.

On Twitter, Snowden called Monday’s decision “historic.”

After the 2013 ruling in which Leon decried the program and a similar decision from an appeals court this spring, Congress voted to end the NSA’s program and replace it with a system requiring the government to receive a court order to search through private companies’ phone records.  

That new system is set to go into place on Nov. 29, 180 days after the legislation was signed. 

Other courts have been less willing than Leon to order the NSA to shut down its phone records program, given that Congress has already acted.

Congress was “clear,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said in October, that the current program ought to continue until the Nov. 29 deadline.

In his scathing response, Leo declared that he “cannot, and will not, sit idle in the face of likely constitutional violations for fear that it might be viewed as meddling with the decision of a legislative branch that lacked the political will, or votes, to expressly and unambiguously authorize the program for another six months.”

Courts have also been generally mixed about the program in general. While the Second Circuit called it illegal in May, the D.C. Circuit overturned Leon’s decision in August. At the time, the D.C. Circuit said that the idiosyncratic legal activist who first filed the challenge, Larry Klayman, had not met the legal threshold to file suit against it.

After that appeals court ruling, the case — known as Klayman v. Obama — was sent back down to Leon. Klayman added new plaintiffs to the case and filed a new complaint with additional information, leading to Monday’s order.

It is “overwhelmingly likely” that the new plaintiffs were swept up in the NSA’s program, Leon wrote, giving them the legal standing to sue. 

This story was updated at 1:52 p.m.