Washington - Senator Rand Paul, a possible Republican presidential candidate, sued the Obama administration on Wednesday over the National Security Agency's mass collection of millions of Americans' phone records.
The senator said he and the conservative activist group FreedomWorks filed the suit for themselves and on behalf of “everyone in America that has a phone”.
The lawsuit argues that the bulk collection operation that's been in existence since 2006 violates the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. It calls for an end to the operation, which was revealed by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden.
The Obama administration maintains that the operation, started under president George Bush, is legal. Courts have largely sided with the government.
President Barack Obama has called for reforms to the operation in an effort to regain public trust. Others, like Paul, have called for the end of this kind of surveillance.
Paul dodged a question about his presidential ambitions during a news conference on Wednesday. But his lawsuit is the latest effort to propel the debate over the once-secret surveillance operation into the 2016 presidential campaign.
The surveillance debate has exposed intra-party tensions for Republicans. The party split on this issue between its leadership, which backs the operation on security grounds, and libertarian-minded members who are more wary of government involvement in Americans' private lives.
The Republican National Committee last month approved a resolution to end the surveillance operations. While some Republicans played down its significance, the non-binding vote was seen as a nod to Republicans like Paul.
The White House and Justice Department did not comment on the lawsuit specifically, but said they believe the bulk collection of phone records is legal.
“This, we believe, will be a historic lawsuit,” Paul said after filing the complaint in US District Court in the District of Columbia. “We believe that this lawsuit could conceivably represent hundreds of millions of people who have phone lines in this country or cellphones.”
Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, is the lead counsel for Paul and FreedomWorks on the suit. Paul appeared at campaign rallies last October to support Cuccinelli's unsuccessful bid for Virginia governor. In December, Paul's advisers approached Cuccinelli about participating in the lawsuit.
“This is a constitutional challenge primarily,” Cuccinelli told The Associated Press. “We're not debating national security policy.”
Cuccinelli has sued the Obama administration before - he was the first state attorney general to mount a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the president's signature health care overhaul.
The bulk collection program, which is authorised in Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, sweeps up what's known as metadata for every phone call made in the US. It collects the number called, the number from which the call is made and the duration and time of the call.
The intelligence community says having this data is key to preventing terrorism. While there is little evidence the operation has been integral in preventing an attack, the Obama administration argues that being able to rule out a US connection is important because it provides “peace of mind”.
Paul's suit cites arguments made in another lawsuit filed last year by conservative lawyer Larry Klayman. In response to Klayman's suit, US District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the bulk collection program was likely unconstitutional. It was the first time a judge did not side with the government on the issue.
Paul's lawsuit was filed against Obama; Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; NSA Director Keith Alexander; and FBI Director James Comey.