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Federal Judge: "I Cannot Imagine" the NSA's Collection of Phone Records is Constitutional

Has Edward Snowden been vindicated? Not quite, but the U.S. government is at least being forced to answer tougher questions about the constitutionality and effectiveness of one of its most controversial counter-terrorism programs.

From Politico:

A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency program which collects information on nearly all telephone calls made to, from or within the United States is likely to be unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon found that the program appears to violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. He also said the Justice Department had failed to demonstrate that collecting the so-called metadata had helped to head off terrorist attacks.

Acting on a lawsuit brought by conservative legal activist Larry Klayman, Leon issued a preliminary injunction barring the NSA from collecting metadata pertaining to the Verizon accounts of Klayman and one of his clients. However, the judge stayed the order to allow for an appeal.

“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 it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” wrote Leon, an appointee of President George W. Bush.”

According to Klayman, the government’s defense of the PRISM program is insufficient, most significantly because Washington cannot point to a single or solitary instance in which the collection of personal information and metadata has thwarted a terrorist attack:

“I have significant doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism,” Leon wrote. “The government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”

Still, just because one U.S. District Court judge seems to find the program unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, doesn’t necessarily mean that the program is unconstitutional:

The judge ruled on a motion for preliminary injunction that does not require him to make a definitive ruling on the constitutional questions in the case, but on which side is more likely to prevail.

Snowden exposed the program back in June and has been on the run from his home country ever since. Speaking of which, is the U.S. government really contemplating giving Snowden political asylum in the United States in exchange for the information he carries?

The head of the National Security Agency task force assessing the effect of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden opened the door to the possibility of offering Snowden amnesty in exchange for documents -- though his boss is not on board with the idea.

In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," Rick Ledgett said that Snowden took "the keys to the kingdom" when he left the U.S. earlier this year and was granted temporary asylum in Russia.

He said he supports at least having a discussion about offering Snowden amnesty from criminal charges if he returns sensitive files still in his possession, and claimed others at the NSA share that view.

Unlikely to happen. Snowden broke the law. What kind of message would it send to grant the guy full amnesty after he already leaked classified information that has done -- and will continue to do -- irreparable damage? But maybe that “conversation” will indeed happen if the NSA is convinced the information he has is so valuable, and so sensitive, that it’s worth absolving him of any wrongdoing if he will only give it up.

Snowden was famously a finalist for Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year Award.” He lost, of course. But given the fact that the NSA is publicly suggesting that they might be willing to negotiate with him (i.e., allow him to return to the United States not as a criminal, but a free citizen), perhaps he should have won. He literally has the ability to change the U.S.’s relations with foreign nations. And not for the better.

That’s an awful lot of power for someone who nobody knew existed six months ago.

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