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Judge Orders NSA to Stop Collecting American's Phone Records Immediately

A federal judge is trying to shut down the NSA’s most controversial program—again.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
Nov 9 2015, 7:39pm

Image: Trevor Paglen

The judge who called the NSA's collection of all phone records "almost Orwellian" and likely unconstitutional just ordered the controversial surveillance program to be shut down immediately.

US District Court Judge Richard Leon ordered the NSA on Monday to stop collecting American phone records, as the program's continued existence for "even one day is a significant harm" to Americans' privacy.

"This court simply cannot, and will not, allow the government to trump the Constitution merely because it suits the exigencies of the moment,' 'Leon wrote in his decision. "Although the Court appreciates the zealousness with which the Government seeks to protect the citizens of our nation, that same government bears just as great a responsibility to protect the individual liberties of those very citizens."

The first-ever article based on top secret NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed the telephone bulk metadata collection program in June of 2013. Ever since then, the program has been the most controversial, and the most discussed, at least in the United States.

The "government bears just as great a responsibility to protect the individual liberties of those very citizens."

Last summer, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, a surveillance reform that prohibits the government from collecting telephone metadata in bulk, but the NSA was able to get the program extended a few more months, until November 29, 2015, the last day that type of surveillance will be legal.

Judge Leon already ruled that this program violated the Fourth Amendment in December of 2013, a decision he echoed and reiterated on Monday. The Judge also complained about the slowness with which this legal process moved.

"I assumed the appeal would proceed expeditiously," Judge Leon wrote in his decision. "For reasons unknown to me, it did not."

Perhaps tired of waiting, Judge Leon ordered the NSA to stop the program right away, without waiting for November 29. What happens now, however, is hard to predict.

"How NSA does that or whether it even can is not totally clear," Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard, adding that the government will probably file a request for an "emergency relief" to suspend the decision.

The NSA did not respond to a request for comment, referring questions to the Department of Justice. A spokesperson with the DOJ said in an email that "the government is reviewing the decision."

Snowden celebrated the "historic" decision on Twitter, calling it a "victory."

Jamel Jaffer, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union said that he hopes this decision could have an effect on other surveillance programs.

The government "should also reconsider the lawfulness of other bulk surveillance programs that have not been officially acknowledged," he said in a statement.

In the last two years, other judges have weighed in on the legality of the program, but none have been so vocal as Judge Leon. A New York District Court dismissed a lawsuit against it, ruling that the ACLU did not have standing to challenge the program. An appeals court later reversed that decision, but did not order the program to stop.

This story has been updated to include comments from the ACLU and DOJ.