NSA's phone data collection program is illegal, says government watchdog

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The National Security Agency's collection of bulk phone records is illegal and should be stopped, according to a report by an independent federal privacy watchdog. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board — made independent by Congress in 2007 — said the NSA's phone record collection program provided "minimal" benefits in counter-terrorism operations. The board's findings run counter to President Obama's, who said last week although the program would "end as it currently exists," its capabilities should be maintained.

The Washington Post reports the board's 238-page document was not able to identify "a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counter-terrorism investigation." It was also unable to find an instance in which the program "directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack."

The board couldn't find a time when phone records made a difference to a counter-terrorism investigation

The report also rejects the arguments of "at least 15 federal surveillance court judges and the Justice Department," who had based the bulk phone call collection program on Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Section 215 was designed to enable the FBI to obtain certain phone records if they were "relevant" to an investigation, but came to be used as a blanket justification for the NSA to collect bulk phone call records across the country. The report says the collection of these records "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."

Two of the five members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board reportedly disagreed that the program was illegal, but all five board members agreed with 10 other recommendations. Some of these recommendations were similar to the changes already mooted by President Obama during his speech last week. Some — such as the deletion of raw phone records after three years rather than five — were more sweeping. Still others, including the faster deletion of data, were not addressed by the president at all.

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