NSA Surveillance Program Illegal Says Government Watchdog Report
Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
On Thursday an independent federal privacy watchdog that was called upon to review the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program offered its opinion that the program to collect bulk phone calls should be shut down. The findings, which were presented in a 238-page report, noted that the program provided only “minimal” benefits in counterterrorism and security efforts, and that the program is also illegal.
This independent study was conducted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), which was made an independent agency in 2007 by the United States Congress. It only recently became fully operational and has had its baptism by fire in reviewing the NSA program, by many opinions ones of the most far-reaching and invasive abuses of government authority in recent history. The PCLOB was created by Congress to protect privacy under post-September 11 anti-terrorism laws.
The group called for the government to not only end its mass data collection program but also to “purge” its files. The panel found that the program “implicates” constitutional concerns under both the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as reported by FoxNews on Thursday.
In particular, the report detailed a critique of the government’s once-secret legal theory, a law known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This allowed the FBI and other agencies to obtain business records deemed “relevant” to an investigation. In its broadest interpretation it could be seen to authorize the NSA to collect all phone data in the country.
The group noted that the program, “lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value. As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program.”
However, the panel has no actual authority to change the programs, and just last week President Barack Obama presented changes to the surveillance program, but these fell far short of ending the program. Instead, Obama said he would continue to allow government use of bulk phone records while preventing the NSA from storing the data and would further require the agency to obtain court approval to use any of the data.
The president has support from across the aisle in the House of Representatives. Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has remained a staunch supporter of the NSA program throughout.
“I am disappointed that three members of the Board decided to step well beyond their policy and oversight role and conducted a legal review of a program that has been thoroughly reviewed,” Rogers said in a statement, adding that federal judges have found the program to be legal dozens of times.
The board’s findings could present a public relations challenge for the White House, which has found itself under pressure from Internet and phone companies, as well as foreign governments and notably civil libertarians following the disclosures of the NSA program by former contractor turned whistle blower Edward Snowden.
However, the Obama administration has maintained that the bulk collection program is both useful and lawful, while also acknowledging concerns about privacy and the potential for civil rights abuses.
As the legality of the program has been questioned, the panel may have provided grounds for challenges, and could question whether it was lawful to collect data from carriers such as AT&T and Verizon.
“This is significant,” Ed Black, president and chief executive officer of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents phone and Internet companies, told Bloomberg Businessweek on Thursday. “There are very deep fundamental flaws for the way the program has been operated.”