December 16, 2013, 5:03 PM — The U.S. Department of Justice defended the National Security Agency's massive phone records collection program after a U.S. District Court judge ruled Monday that the program is likely to violate the U.S. Constitution.
Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the NSA's controversial collection of U.S. telephone records may violate the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Four plaintiffs asked the judge to order their records removed from the NSA's database, and the judge agreed, but stayed his ruling pending a DOJ appeal.
The DOJ has "seen the opinion and are studying it," Andrew Ames, spokesman for the DOJ's National Security Division, said in an email. "We believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found. We have no further comment at this time."
The NSA referred questions to the DOJ.
Fifteen judges in the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have approved the program on 35 separate occasions. Leon's ruling, if it stands, may set up a Supreme Court case to arbitrate between Leon's decision and the FISA court, said Ross Schulman, public policy and regulatory counsel at the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group that's been critical of the NSA program.
"It is encouraging to see the judiciary taking up the important questions of metadata analysis and realizing the great insights about one's life that can be gleaned from such large sets of information," Schulman said by email. "While this kind of large-scale data crunching can lead to great advances in medicine, transportation, and even simply movie rentals, it raises serious concerns when governments do it to pick out the relationships between its citizens."
Other critics of the NSA program cheered Leon's ruling.
"This is a strongly worded and carefully reasoned decision that ultimately concludes, absolutely correctly, that the NSA's call-tracking program can't be squared with the Constitution," American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement.
The NSA's defense of the program is partly based on a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that an individual suspect's Fourth Amendment rights weren't violated with a wiretap.