A US federal judge has ruled that the National Security Agency's collection of telephone data violated a fundamental principle of the US Constitution. It's a groundbreaking decision, says ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey.
DW: What exactly did Judge Richard J. Leon criticize in his judgment?
Patrick Toomey: The most important point is that this judge determined, after hearing from both sides, that the NSA's tracking of Americans' call records for over seven years violated an individual's right to privacy. He based that decision on the fact that the metadata of our phone calls - that is, whom we call, when we call them, how long those calls last - can reveal very sensitive and private information about people. Information that individuals would not ordinarily share with their government. And, especially when the NSA collects that information over long periods of time, it allows the NSA to assemble a detailed picture of people's lives. That violates a reasonable expectation of privacy and the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution [which prevents "unreasonable searches and seizures" and requires a warrant for searches - eds.]. Because of that determination he found that the program was unconstitutional and that it was substantially likely that the plaintiffs would succeed on the merits of their case.
DW: What legal implications could that have for the work of the intelligence agencies - and for other cases concerning the practices of the NSA?
The immediate legal impact is yet to be seen because this decision is subject to an appeals process and that appeals process will go forward before any part of the program is stopped.
But in terms of its contribution to the wider public debate, and indeed to the legal debate, in cases like the American Civil Liberties Union's challenge to the same program in New York, I think we will see that the impact of this decision will be immediate and profound. Because what it says to the public is that when these programs can be challenged in public courts in a transparent way, that judges - even ones appointed by a conservative president - can conclude and have concluded, that they are unconstitutional and that they violate the individual's right to privacy. I think it will be significant - both in convincing the public that there are grave legal problems with these programs, and in pushing Congress to act to reform these programs legislatively.
DW: What effect could the decision have on the assessment of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers?
I think it will certainly contribute to the public's view of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, and its understanding of the significance of these disclosures - the fact that he revealed conduct that a federal judge has now concluded was in fact unconstitutional. And that the First Amendment rights of whistleblowers are key because they are a conduit by which the public can learn of fraud, waste, abuse and other types of illegal misconduct or unconstitutional actions by government officials or government agencies.
I think that it confirms that Edward Snowden is not a traitor, as many people have alleged, but he is in fact a whistleblower who has contributed greatly to the public conversation and discourse and debate about these very serious and very intrusive programs.
Patrick C. Toomey is an attorney for the National Security Program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He works in the areas of intelligence, indefinite detentions and government secrets.