WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Monday concluded that a National Security Agency program that collects massive amounts of telephone data "likely" violates the Constitution, propelling a high-stakes fight right toward the Supreme Court.
In an extraordinary 68-page decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington ordered the NSA to stop snooping on two specific individuals who had challenged the bulk telephone metadata collection program. While Leon then stayed his own order, anticipating a government appeal, his skepticism about the program's constitutionality came through loud and clear.
The bulk telephone metadata collection program "almost certainly does violate a reasonable expectation of privacy," Leon wrote, taking note of the "almost Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States."
Appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2002, Leon further cautioned that the 21st century surveillance technologies may have outstripped the decades-old legal precedents being used to justify them. The only way to resolve the dilemma spelled out in Leon's decision is for the Supreme Court to revisit the issues once the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit takes a crack at it.
Larry Klayman, one of the individuals who challenged the NSA program, applauded the judge's decision.
"We have criminal behavior on behalf of the government, and the judge stepped in," Klayman said. "And we thank him for that."
The ruling sparked similar reactions from several lawmakers deeply involved in the debate over NSA surveillance, including Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Both lawmakers are backing legislation that would end NSA's dragnet data collection programs.
Klayman, who has been challenging presidents in court since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, joined with an ally named Charles Strange to sue several federal agencies, as well as individual telecommunications companies.
Klayman, the founder of the political advocacy group Freedom Watch, is described on the organization's web site as "the one man tea party.'' The group's headquarters is in Ocala, according to the website.
Strange is the father of Michael Strange, a Navy cryptologic technician who died in Afghanistan in 2011 while supporting SEAL Team Six missions.
Klayman and Strange sued shortly after newspapers in June revealed details about the U.S. surveillance program through leaks from former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden. In a statement Monday, Snowden praised the court's ruling.
Leon's order covered telephone data, but not Internet data.
In the preliminary injunction, Leon directed the NSA to stop collecting any telephone metadata associated with the Verizon Wireless accounts of Klayman and Strange. Leon also directed the NSA to "destroy any such metadata in its possession that was collected through the bulk collection program." Citing the "significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues," Leon agreed to stay the order so the Obama administration can appeal.
The National Security Agency deferred questions to the Justice Department, where officials stand by the programs.
"We've seen the opinion and are studying it," said Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames. "We believe the program is constitutional, as previous judges have found."