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Editorial: U.S. must decide if NSA needs some blinders

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md. (June 6, 2013) Credit: AP

In the first significant legal setback for the National Security Agency's vast and troubling collection of metadata, a federal judge ruled Monday that gathering information on nearly all the phone calls made to, from and within the United States is probably an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon's harshly worded ruling came in the first phase of a lawsuit by an advocacy group challenging the federal government's power to collect massive amounts of personal data. However, he stayed his injunction because the Obama administration will appeal and higher courts will decide whether the data collection is an unreasonable search and seizure.

"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 judicial approval," Leon said. Just as damning, he found that the NSA failed to show that the vast data grab is in the public interest, citing not one example that an imminent terrorist attack was prevented.

Congress has taken far too long to address the issue of how much snooping is just too much. Now another branch of government, the judiciary, has zapped lawmakers with a cattle prod.

Leon's ruling comes at a critical time. Six months after former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden's extensive theft of classified information became known, the NSA still doesn't know exactly what he took. The NSA is so concerned that in a recent interview on CBS' "60 Minutes," the agency official assessing the effects of the leaks floated the possibility of amnesty for Snowden to prevent further disclosures and to determine how he was able to evade detection.

How much privacy should we surrender in the name of national security? Finally the issue seems to be getting its day in court.