Judge Pulls No Punches in Ruling Against NSA Program

The author of the U.S. Constitution would be 'aghast,' Judge Richard Leon wrote

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Mon, December 16, 2013

IDG News Service (Washington, D.C., Bureau) — Judge Richard Leon ripped into the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Security Agency in his Monday ruling that the NSA's controversial collection of U.S. telephone records may violate the U.S. Constitution.

Leon, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled in favor of four plaintiffs who challenged the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. telephone records.

Here are some highlights of the 68-page ruling:

On the NSA's policy of searching for phone numbers no more than three hops from a suspect's phone number: "It is likely that the quantity of phone numbers captured in any given query would be very large .... Suppose that one of the numbers [a suspect in New York City] calls is his neighborhood Domino's Pizza shop. The Court won't hazard a guess as to how many different phone numbers might dial a given Domino's Pizza outlet in New York City in a five-year-period, but to take a page from the Government's book of understatement, it's 'substantially larger'" than a 100-number estimate the judge used in an earlier example.

On whether Congress intended to allow a district court to review the NSA's surveillance programs, in addition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's review: "Where, as here, core individual constitutional rights are implicated by Government action, Congress should not be able to cut off a citizen's right to judicial review of that Government action simply because it intended for the conduct to remain secret by operation of the design of its statutory scheme. While Congress has great latitude to create statutory schemes like FISA, it may not hang a cloak of secrecy over the Constitution."

On the DOJ's assertion that the plaintiffs, Verizon Wireless customers, don't have standing to challenge the NSA program because the leaked FISC order covering the NSA collection program covers only Verizon landlines: "The Government obviously wants me to infer that the NSA may not have collected records from Verizon Wireless (or perhaps any other [non-Verizon] entity, such as AT&T and Sprint. Curiously, the Government makes this argument at the same time it is describing in its pleadings a bulk metadata collection program that can function only because it 'creates a historical repository that permits retrospective analysis of terrorist-related communications across multiple telecommunications networks.' Put simply, the Government wants it both ways."

"To draw an analogy, if the NSA's program operates the way the Government suggests it does, then omitting Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint from the collection would be like omitting John, Paul, and George from a historical analysis of the Beatles. A Ringo-only database doesn't make any sense, and I cannot believe the Government would create, maintain, and so ardently defend such a system."

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