Lawmakers applaud court ruling against NSA

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.

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"The slow trickle of revelations that began in June about NSA spying have exposed the most intrusive and secretive programs in American history," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the House author of the USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA's bulk phone data collection.

"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 LeahyPatrick LeahyOvernight Cybersecurity: Guccifer plea deal raises questions in Clinton probe Senate panel delays email privacy vote amid concerns Senate amendments could sink email privacy compromise MORE (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 PaulRand PaulOvernight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Overnight Regulation: GOP slams new Obama education rules Paul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate MORE (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 WydenRon WydenPuerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate Senate panel delays email privacy vote amid concerns Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns MORE (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 UdallMark UdallEnergy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium Two vulnerable senators lack challengers for 2016 MORE (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 FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinClinton’s email troubles deepen Top Dem: CIA officials thought spying on Senate ‘was flat out wrong’ Senate panel advances spy policy bill, after House approves its own version MORE (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).