A federal government panel charged with oversight of the National Security Agency's surveillance policies says its massive phone-data collection program is probably illegal, in another blow to the Obama administration.A federal government panel charged with oversight of the National Security Agency's surveillance policies says its massive phone-data collection program is probably illegal, in another blow to the Obama administration.
The Obama administration has said the while the data-collection program needs reforms in concert with Congress, it is legal and needed for national security.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) is an agency that has been largely ignored or underfunded for years under the Bush and Obama administrations. But in a report released on Thursday, PCLOB was highly critical of the NSA’s program to collect basic phone-call information to be stored at government facilities, as a tool in the fight against terrorism.
Link: Read The Full Report
PCLOB’s job is to provide oversight guidance, as an independent agency of the executive branch, about the activities of the NSA, government surveillance in general, and the secret court known as FISC.
The group rarely meets, but it was tasked by President Obama, as the Edward Snowden situation unfolded, to come up with an independent report on the legality of the NSA’s activities.
In a 3-2 vote, the panel said that the bulk collection of phone metadata allowed under section 215 of the Patriot Act is illegal, and should be stopped. It was the three Democrats on the panel who voted to say the data-collection program was unconstitutional, under the First and Fourth Amendments.
PCLOB has an advisory role, and it can issue recommendations to executive branch agencies. Officially, its mandate is to “review and analyze actions the executive branch takes to protect the Nation from terrorism, ensuring the need for such actions is balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties.”
Like a separate review group’s report issued in December, PCLOB has questions about the overall effectiveness of the phone data collection program in the fight against terrorism.
It cites “no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”
The report also revealed that the FISC secret court never ruled on the legality of the metadata program until August 2013, about seven years after the program began.
Last week, President Obama said in a national speech that he wanted Congress to work with the Executive Branch on reforms and that a panel of special advocates is needed to argue cases in front of the FISC court.
But Obama also defended the phone metadata program as a necessary tool in the government’s national security program.
The PCLOB report is the latest development in the evolving debate about privacy and national security.
A separate five-person panel in December made 46 recommendations to President Obama about extensive changes to NSA programs. That panel didn’t call for an end to the phone metadata collection program, but it wanted data collection moved to a third party or telecommunications companies.
Two federal judges have issued conflicting opinions on the program’s legality. Judge Richard Leon said on December 16 that the phone data collection is likely unconstitutional. But on December 27, Judge William Pauley said the program was constitutional in rejecting a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
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