In a sharp rebuke of the Obama administration's spy program, a federal judge has ruled the National Security Agency's mass collection of American phone records is unconstitutional.
The White House insists the program is a key weapon in the fight against terror. But U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled Monday that the bulk collection is unconstitutional.
Leon, a Bush appointee, said it likely violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable search.
"A federal judge is finally pushing back, is finally saying to the NSA, 'No, in fact mass collection of phone records without individualized suspicion is not legal,'" Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said.
The judge even called the government program "almost-Orwellian," an adjective used to describe an idea destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.
President Barack Obama has long maintained that the program merely tracks who people talk to on the phone and from where.
On the road in San Jose in June, the president defended the practice.
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about," he said.
The president has also made the case that it keeps Americans safe and has already prevented at least 50 terrorist attacks.
Judge Leon dismissed that claim, however, noting an "utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics."
The ruling is a boost for former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who exposed the program by leaking classified documents. Snowden remains in Russia on temporary asylum.
The Obama administration made it clear on Monday that there will be no amnesty for the former government worker.
"Mr. Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information and he faces felony charges here in the United States," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Snowden is reportedly offering to help Brazil investigate NSA activity in that country in exchange for asylum.
Monday's ruling is considered more of an opening salvo in the battle over privacy and Americans' phone records. The judge stayed his own ruling pending an expected appeal by the government.
Many believe the Supreme Court will ultimately decide just how far the government can go in keeping tabs on who Americans talk to on their phones.