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Hearing a lawsuit filed by two men – a father of an NSA cryptologist killed in Afghanistan, and a lawyer and activist – US District Court Judge Richard Leon said that their legal challenge against the government would likely succeed.
“The court concludes that plaintiffs have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s bulk collection and querying of phone record metadata, that they have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim (of unlawful search and seizure), and that they will suffer irreparable harm absent…relief,” Leon wrote in his 68-page ruling.
The judge’s ruling is based on critical intelligence data leaked to the press by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, in June.
Snowden blew the whistle on Washington’s domestic and foreign surveillance programme and consequently unleashed a torrent of diplomatic tension caused by revelations that the US was spying on ally and enemy alike.
He then fled to Hong Kong, followed by five weeks in limbo in the transit area of Moscow’s airport. He was granted asylum in Russia in late July. Since then, diplomatic relations between the US and Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France and others have been tested.
But Leon’s ruling marks the first time that the NSA domestic surveillance programme has come under such critical constitutional challenge.
Legal experts say that this is the first of such lawsuits and delivers a blow to the NSA and the current White House.
In November, Snowden – considered a felon and wanted fugitive in the US – said: “Instead of causing damage, the usefulness of the new public knowledge for society is now clear because reforms to politics, supervision and laws are being suggested.”
“Citizens have to fight against the suppression of information about affairs of essential importance for the public. Those who speak the truth are not committing a crime,” Snowden said in A Manifesto for the Truth published by German news magazine Der Spiegel.
Leon may agree; he said the NSA was resorting to “Orwellian technology” to store and analyse phone metadata.
“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,” the federal judge wrote in his ruling.
Although the White House has not issued a formal response, instead saying it was studuing the decision, NSA Director Keith Anderson told the media that there was no better way to protect the US from imminent attacks.
Leon granted an injunction against the NSA programme on Monday, but suspended it temporarily to allow the Justice Department a chance to appeal his ruling.