By Brendan Sasso - 12/17/13 09:49 AM EST
Critics of the National Security Agency on Capitol Hill are applauding Monday's court decision that the agency's sweeping collection of records on all U.S. phone calls is likely unconstitutional.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the data collection is likely an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment, but he put his order to end the program on hold.
Lawmakers argue that the ruling shows the need for their legislation to limit the NSA's power.
"I am encouraged by the district court’s ruling. It will add to the growing momentum behind the USA FREEDOM Act, which has garnered support from a large, diverse bloc of my colleagues and the business community," he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate author of the USA Freedom Act, noted that the people who sued the NSA were able to participate in an "adversarial process" in the federal district court. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court secretly authorized the phone data program several years ago based only on arguments from the government.
“Americans deserve an open and transparent debate about the constitutionality, efficacy, and appropriateness of the government’s dragnet collection programs," Leahy said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the decision is an "important first step" toward having the constitutionality of the program determined in the regular court system.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a privacy advocate and longtime critic of the NSA, said the ruling "hits the nail on the head."
He applauded Leon for dismissing a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, Smith v. Maryland, which held that the Fourth Amendment does not protect "metadata" such as phone numbers, call times and call durations.
Wyden argued that Leon was right to express doubts about the effectiveness of the programs in combatting terrorism.
"Protecting the country from terrorism is obviously vitally important but the government can do this without collecting the phone records of massive numbers of law-abiding men, women and children,” Wyden said.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has worked with Wyden on the Intelligence Committee to limit the NSA's power, said the ruling underscores his argument that the program "conflicts with Americans' privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution and has failed to make us safer."
"We can protect our national security without trampling our constitutional liberties," Udall said.
But in order to pass legislation, the lawmakers will have to battle the NSA's defenders on Capitol Hill — led by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).