Richard Leon, a judge of the District Court for the District of Columbia, called NSA’s intrusive surveillance program “almost Orwellian” and suggested that James Madison, the author of the US Constitution, would be “aghast” to learn that the government was encroaching on liberty in such a way.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Leon wrote on Monday.
“Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”
Leon ordered the government to stop collecting data on two plaintiffs’ personal calls and destroy the records of their calling history. However, the judge suspended his own order to allow an appeal by the Justice Department.
Although the ruling will have little immediate effect and faces a lengthy future of court proceedings, the ruling is the first major legal defeat for the NSA since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed secrets about the agency's data collection in June.
The ruling was in response to lawsuits brought by conservative activist Larry Klayman and Charles Strange, whose father, Michael Strange, was a cryptologist technician for the NSA and who was killed in Afghanistan when his helicopter was shot down in 2011.
Klayman called the judge "the last guard... the last sentry to the tyranny in this country."
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a similar lawsuit in the Southern District of New York.
The ACLU case, which is based on First and Fourth Amendment protections of speech and privacy, says that the USA Patriot Act does not authorize such widespread spying.
"Neither the statute nor the Constitution permits the government to engage in that kind of dragnet surveillance of hundreds of millions of people who haven't done anything wrong," said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director.