Civil liberties advocates on the left and the right have argued for many years—but especially in the aftermath of revelations this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—that spying by the National Security Agency disregards privacy protections outlined in the Fourth Amendment and is surely unconstitutional. Indeed, as the American Civil Liberties Union has argued, the NSA’s “unconstitutional surveillance” represents “a grave danger to American democracy.”
Now, a federal judge has recognized the constitutional concerns.
“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 for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” wrote US District Judge Richard Leon.
Judge Leon’s decision, which will surely be appealed, focuses attention on legal challenges to the spying program. But it also serves as a reminder that Congress can and should act to defend privacy rights.
“The ruling underscores what I have argued for years: The bulk collection of Americans’ phone records conflicts with Americans’ privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution and has failed to make us safer,” says Senator Mark Udall, D-Colorado, a supporter of legislation to end the bulk collection program. “We can protect our national security without trampling our constitutional liberties.”
Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said: “Judge Leon’s ruling hits the nail on the head. It makes clear that bulk phone records collection is intrusive digital surveillance and not simply inoffensive data collection as some have said. The court noted that this metadata can be used for ‘repetitive, surreptitious surveillance of a citizen’s private goings on,’ that creates a mosaic of personal information and is likely unconstitutional. This ruling dismisses the use of an outdated Supreme Court decision affecting rotary phones as a defense for the technologically advanced collection of millions of Americans’ records. It clearly underscores the need to adopt meaningful surveillance reforms that prohibit the bulk collection of Americans’ records.”
The senators had reason to be enthusiastic about Judge Leon determination that legal challenges to the massive surveillance program are valid. So valid, in fact, that he issued a preliminary injunction against the program. The judge suspended the order, however, in order to allow a Justice Department appeal.
But Judge Leon was blunt regarding the strength of the challenge that was brought after Snowden revealed details of the agency’s spying in The Guardian.
"I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison… would be aghast," the judge wrote with regard to the NSA program for surveillance of cell phone records,