WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Three weeks before the U.S. National Security Agency was scheduled to shut down and replace its once-secret phone data collection program, a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional Monday, saying the agency should shut down the controversial operation.
The government was planning to replace the program, which permits the NSA to collect domestic phone data in bulk on national security grounds, on Nov. 29. Monday, though, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon jumped that target date by ruling the program violates the Constitution.
"With the government's authority to operate the Bulk Telephony Metadata Program quickly coming to an end, this case is perhaps the last chapter in the judiciary's evaluation of this particular program's compatibility with the Constitution," Leon concluded in a 43-page ruling. "It will not, however, be the last chapter in the ongoing struggle to balance privacy rights and national security interests under our constitution in an age of evolving technological wizardry.
"Although this court appreciates the government's 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," he continued.
Leon ordered that the NSA refrain from collecting any further data for the program. However, it only bars the agency from mining the data of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Leon ruled in 2013 that the NSA program likely violates the Constitution, but national security interests and uncertainty about the program's constitutionality at the time led him to stay an order blocking its continued operation. Two years later, though, Leon said he has a much better view on the matter.
"I [stayed the order in 2013] with the optimistic hope that the appeals process would move expeditiously," he wrote. "However, because it has almost been two years since I first found that the NSA's Bulk Telephony Metadata program likely violates the Constitution and because the loss of constitutional freedoms for even one day is a significant harm, I will not do so today."
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about," Obama said in 2013. "What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content."
The NSA's phone surveillance program was part of a cache of intelligence disclosed more than two years ago by whistleblower Edward Snowden -- who formerly worked for the agency, the U.S. Department of Defense and the CIA.