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NSA phone surveillance is 'likely unconstitutional,' judge rules

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WASHINGTON (AP/WJLA) - A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches, but put his decision on hold pending a near-certain government appeal.

Judge doubts NSA surveillance

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs Larry Klayman and Charles Strange, concluding they were likely to prevail in their constitutional challenge.

Leon, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, ruled Monday that the two men are likely to be able to show that their privacy interests outweigh the government's interest in collecting the data. Leon says that means that massive collection program is an unreasonable search under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

The collection program was disclosed by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, provoking a heated debate over civil liberties. President Obama has said in the past that the program only collects information on who called and from where, and that it has kept America safe:

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about. It has saved lives. We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information."

But in his a 68-page, heavily footnoted opinion, Leon concluded that the government didn't cite a single instance in which the program "actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack."

"I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism," he added.

He said was staying his ruling pending appeal "in light of the significant national security interests at stake in this case and the novelty of the constitutional issues.

The ruling is a victory for fugitive NSA hacker Edward Snowden, and a strong rebuke to the Obama Administration’s controversial NSA surveillance program, according to one expert:

"A federal judge is finally pushing back, is finally saying to the NSA, 'No,
in fact a mass collection of phone records without individualized suspicion is not legal," said Stephen I. Vladeck, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Scholarship at American University.

Later on Tuesday, while speaking to tech-company executives, the President referenced the cloak-and-dagger storylines of a popular television show, aware that he’s in a true-life drama himself – along with the main character, Edward Snowden.

"I'm just wondering if you brought advance copies of 'House of Cards,' he joked.

Since a federal judge ruled against the NSA data monitoring program that Snowden exposed, there’s a renewed, passionate debate on its value.

And Snowden, temporarily in Russia, is now seeking full-time asylum in Brazil. Penning this open letter, he writes:

American senators tell us that Brazil should not worry, because this is not "surveillance," it's "data collection." They say it is done to keep you safe. They're wrong.

I have expressed my willingness to assist wherever appropriate and lawful, but unfortunately, the United States government has worked very hard to limit my ability to do so.

Many want Snowden back on U.S. soil, but to be prosecuted, not granted immunity.

“We believe that Mr. Snowden ought to return to the United States, where he faces charge," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. 

Meanwhile, the entire program’s fate and ability to cross-reference massive amounts of data -- most notably phone calls to identify terror plots -- now hangs in the balance.

The most recent ruling all but assures that it will be challenged in Appeals Court, then likely the Supreme Court. The process could easily take six months or more.

In Washington, D.C.’s Police Chief Cathy Lanier argued there is a need for a program and that it can save lives:

"There's some very, very valid uses for this type of information, and the intent is what it should be -- and as long as it's managed and the policy is strong and it's managed well, I think it keeps us safer."

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