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US judge deals domestic blow to NSA on phone records issue

A US court has provisionally ruled that the widespread NSA collection of American citizens' phone data is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Washington reiterated its wish to put former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on trial.

US District Court Judge Richard Leon on Monday dealt a potential blow to NSA operations at home, granting a preliminary injunction to two plaintiffs claiming that their right to privacy outweighed the government's interest in collection of bulk phone records.

Judge Leon said that the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which begins: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated," would likely trump national security arguments for the espionage.

"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," Leon said in a sometimes colorful 68-page verdict.

He mentioned the lack of evidence from the US government showing an example of the NSA gathering telephone "metadata" that "actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack." The court case stemmed from the reports in documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden that alleged that the NSA had compelled telecommunications giant Verizon and other rival companies to release phone billing records, or metadata.

"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," Leon wrote, in a lengthy verdict in which the conservative judge at one point referred to the breaches of citizens' rights as "Orwellian."

However, the ruling was immediately declared to be on hold and pending appeal by Leon, owing to the high likelihood of a government appeal on grounds "of significant national security interest." As an injunction, Leon's statement currrently applies only to the two plaintiffs in the case, Larry Klayman and Charles Strange.

'Unlike anything that could have been conceived of in 1979'

In the past, the US government had defended phone metadata collection on the grounds of the 1979 "Smith v Maryland" Supreme Court case, which ruled that nobody could expect routinely-stored phone company business records to be protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Leon surmised, however, that technological capabilities and phone usage habits had evolved too far for that ruling to stand. He said the changes, especially with the rise of mobile phones, meant the situation had "become so thoroughly unlike those considered by the Supreme Court 34 years ago" that "a precedent like Smith does not apply."

White House rejects Snowden amnesty

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that Washington was still seeking to press criminal charges against whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

This followed an episode of the CBS show "60 Minutes" in which the head of an NSA task force dealing with the leaks said he would personally consider an amnesty in return for Snowden's silence.

"Our position has not changed on that matter at all," Carney told reporters, when asked about the issue. "Mr. Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information and he faces felony charges here in the United States. He should be returned to the United States as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process in our [legal] system."

Snowden, who is currently in Russia after being granted temporary asylum, went public with information about the National Security Agency (NSA) and other similar intelligence bodies' espionage activities earlier in the year.

Silence more valuable than conviction?

NSA member Rick Ledgett had told the CBS show "60 Minutes" that he believed much of the most damaging information Snowden held was not in the public domain. Snowden himself has made similar claims.

Ledgett said it was therefore his "personal view" that an amnesty in return for Snowden's silence was "worth having a conversation about." He mentioned on the CBS show that many of his colleagues disagreed, and said that he would set a "high bar" in any potential amnesty negotiations concerning Snowden.

Ledgett cited in particular a string of documents that he said amounted to a description of the NSA's intelligence strengths and weaknesses, especially areas where it was seeking and lacking information. He described this knowledge as "the keys to the kingdom."

Should a rival country acquire these documents, Ledgett said this would provide a "roadmap of what we know, what we don't know, and give them - implicitly - a way to protect their information from the US intelligence community's view."

On the same "60 Minutes" broadcast, however, NSA chief General Keith Alexander said he rejected the idea of an amnesty.

"This is analogous to a hostage-taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then saying: 'You give me full amnesty and I'll let the other 40 go'," Alexander said.

msh/pfd (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)