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Rem Rieder is a media columnist for USA TODAY. / USA TODAY

Many commentators were critical when Time magazine picked Pope Francis rather than National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden as its Person of the Year.

But Snowden got quite a consolation prize Monday when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA's collection of the phone records of millions of Americans is probably unconstitutional.

Snowden says he didn't think the government's massive surveillance would stand up to a challenge in court, and that was in part why he leaked the classified government documents that exposed them.

"How could it not vindicate him?" asks Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who led the way on the Snowden story with his articles in the British newspaper The Guardian.

It's hard to remember now, but when the Snowden saga erupted in June, the Washington establishment heaped scorn on the contractor. So did many mainstream Washington journalists.There seemed to be more interest in calling Snowden names than in grappling with the enormous amount of government snooping he exposed.

But that changed over time as the significance of the revelations sunk in. Even such vociferous NSA defenders as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, decided it was time for a wholesale re-evaluation of government surveillance. A number of legislators have introduced bills to rein in the NSA. Snowden got the national debate he was seeking.

Now Judge Leon has castigated the government's collection of "telephony metadata" -- when a call was made, who it went to, how long it lasted -- in no uncertain terms.

"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 and analyzing it without prior judicial approval," Leon wrote. "Surely, such a program infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment." That amendment bars unreasonable search and seizure by the government.

The jurist, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, described the NSA data collection as "Orwellian."

What's more, he said that there's no indication it worked.

"Given the limited record before me at this point in the litigation - most notably the utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics - 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.

Leon's ruling is hardly the last word on the subject. While he issued a preliminary injunction to stop the snooping, he immediately suspended it so the government could appeal. And there are other suits over the surveillance working their way through the courts. It's likely the matter will ultimately be sorted out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But make no mistake: This was a major moment in the Snowden saga. A federal judge appointed by a Republican president has rejected the telephone record collecting in the harshest of terms as a fundamental violation of the Constitution.

As the uproar over the Snowden revelations reached a crescendo, President Obama said he welcomed a national debate over NSA surveillance.

Well, he certainly got one.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Rieder: A ringing rejection of NSA surveillance

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