Nightly News   |  December 16, 2013

Judge’s ruling suggests NSA data collection violated Constitution

A federal judge has dealt the first serious legal blow to the NSA's massive collection of data on the phone calls made by every American.  It's the first step in what's sure to be a high-stakes legal battle. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> to the u.s. constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. some of the original wording came from john adams himself in response to the british searching homes and businesses back in colonial times . well, fast forward to modern day and our lead story tonight, a federal judge has ruled the nsa is violating our fourth amendment rights when it collects data on phone calls into and from the united states . in the name of keeping us safe, americans have sacrificed a number of freedoms since 9/11, including the privacy of communications. this judge's decision goeses right to the heart of that. it's where we begin tonight with with our justice correspondent pete williams in our d.c. newsroom. pete, good evening.

>> brian, good evening. this is the first ruling by a federal judge to suggest collecting all the data about every phone call in the u.s. violates the constitution and the judge says that a supreme court ruling relied on by the government to defend the program is out of date. it's a serious legal blow to one of the most controversial practices of the nsa. a once secret program disclosed six months ago by a former nsa insider, edward snowden . the nsa gathers logs of every phone number dialled by u.s. phone customers, and dumps it into an enormous database. so much data the nsa is building a huge new facility to store it all.

>> the purpose of these programs and the reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the american people . not to hide it from you, but to hide it from those who walk among you who are trying to kill you.

>> reporter: the nsa says it checks the database only when it has a terrorism lead tied to a specific phone number . federal judge richard leon called all the data gathering indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion of privacy. i am not convinced, he said, the nsa database has ever truly served the purpose of rapidly identifying terrorists. he questioned the relevance of a 1979 supreme court ruling relied on by the government that said phone customers have no privacy interest in their calling records. the judge said that's been eclipsed by technology in what he called a cell phone -centric lifestyle.

>> it ultimately will be a decision for the court of appeals or the supreme court to decide anyway. what this one judge decides today is just a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper.

>> reporter: it's a victory for a washington, d.c. lawyer who wanted to stop the government from collecting information about his calls.

>> meta data allows the government to be able to tell who you are soes kuwaiting with, whether it's your doctor, your lawyer, your accountant, whoever. it is extremely intimidating.

>> reporter: for edward snowden the obama administration rejected any idea what he be given amnesty in return for ending the leaks.

>> he should be returned to the united states where he will be afforded full due process and protection in the system.

>> reporter: the judge put a hold on the ruling to give the government time to appeal. so the nsa can gathering data for now. in a statement about the ruling snowden said a secret program when exposed to the light of day was found to violate americans' rights. brian?