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A thorn in government’s side scores one in NSA case

Judge agrees with crusader on phone records

“If only one in 10 gets through, you’ve accomplished something. You’ve got to keep punching,” Larry Klayman said.

AP/File

“If only one in 10 gets through, you’ve accomplished something. You’ve got to keep punching,” Larry Klayman said.

WASHINGTON — Larry Klayman knew how to pick a legal fight long before Monday, when he took the first round in a judicial crusade on behalf of the little guy against big-government snooping. But not always a winning fight.

In the 1990s, he filed numerous lawsuits against President Clinton and his administration, alleging a litany of personal and professional transgressions. Klayman later nettled Vice President Dick Cheney over his secret energy policy meetings and claimed that members of George W. Bush’s administration might have known in advance of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

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More recently, Klayman, who has been called “Litigious Larry,” sued OPEC, accusing oil-rich nations of price fixing and of trying to “bring Western economies to their knees.” And he sued Facebook and its founder for $1 billion when, he said, it was too slow to take down a Web page that threatened Jews with death.

Many of his lawsuits have fallen far short of the success bombastically predicted by Klayman. But on Monday, a federal judge agreed with his contention that the National Security Agency had exceeded its constitutional authority by systematically gathering the telephone records of Americans.

Klayman, in Klayman-like fashion, quickly proclaimed it the “biggest ruling in the history of government litigation,” and said it validated his repeated legal assaults against the establishment.

“It’s a little like a MIRV nuking a missile,” he said in an interview Monday night, referring to the use of a weapon with several warheads to take down an incoming threat. “If only one in 10 gets through, you’ve accomplished something. You’ve got to keep punching.”

US District Court Judge Richard Leon, who made headlines around the world by declaring that the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records is probably unconstitutional, knows that his won’t be the last word on the issue.

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Leon put the ruling on hold and predicted that a government appeal would take at least six months. Even after a federal appeals court rules, the Supreme Court probably will have the final say.

The NSA says its authority to sweep up millions of phone records is well established in case law, deriving from a 1976 Baltimore case in which a court ruled that seizure of phone records was legal. But even former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, the prosecutor who pressed for a robber’s conviction in that precedent-setting case, thinks the government has gone too far.

In his ruling Monday, Leon embraced some of the bigger-than-life language that is Klayman’s forte. In his 68-page decision, the judge called the NSA’s use of its technology “almost Orwellian.”

He added that he could not “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.”

But even as he agreed with Klayman’s accusations, the judge took pains to note Klayman’s less-than-traditional legal style.

Klayman is a fixture of sorts in Washington. He founded, and then parted ways, with the conservative interest group Judicial Watch, which continues litigating grievances despite Klayman’s bitter departure. (He sued Judicial Watch, too, accusing it of breach of contract and other offenses.) His 2009 book is titled “Whores: Why and How I Came to Fight the Establishment.”

Klayman has not spared the current Democratic administration. At a Tea Party rally in October, he urged conservatives “to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”

Last year, Klayman filed a lawsuit in Florida arguing that Barack Obama was ineligible to be president because “neither Mr. Obama, nor the Democratic Party of Florida, nor any other group has confirmed that Mr. Obama is a ‘natural born citizen’ since his father was a British subject born in Kenya and not a citizen of the United States.”

Klayman’s own political career was short-lived. In 2004, he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for the Senate in Florida, receiving only about 1 percent of the vote.

But it is a point of pride for Klayman that his legal “missiles” are aimed in only one direction. He is proudly nonpartisan, he said, giving himself credit for being “one of the first” to call for Newt Gingrich to resign over ethics scandals when he was the speaker of the House.

Klayman said his legal attacks on the government’s spying programs are further evidence that he cares less about the party in power than about forcing the powerful to answer to their critics.

“To me, this is completely a nonpartisan issue. . . . I’m just happy for the American people,” he said Monday.

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