News Column

Privacy Board: NSA Cell Phone Surveillance Illegal

January 23, 2014

Spencer Ackerman in Washington, The Guardian

The US government's privacy board has rebuked Barack Obama over the National Security Agency's mass collection of American phone data, saying the programme he defended last week was illegal and ought to be shut down.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent and long-troubled liberties advocate in the executive branch, issued a report yesterday concluding that the NSA's collection of every US phone record on a daily basis violates legal restrictions of the statute cited to authorise it, in section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The recommendations of the five-member board, which were not unanimous, amount to the strongest criticism yet within the US government of the highly controversial mass surveillance programme, first disclosed by the Guardian thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Its report gives fresh support to Congressional efforts to end the practice on Capitol Hill - the main political battleground where the scope of surveillance will be readjusted this year.

According to an advance copy of the report, published by the Washington Post and the New York Times, the board found that the mass phone data collection was at best marginally useful for US counter-terrorism, a finding that went further than similar assessments by a federal judge and Obama's own surveillance advisory board. Not only did it conclude that the bulk surveillance was a threat to constitutional liberties but it could not find "a single instance" in which it "made a concrete difference in the outcome of a terrorism investigation".

It said: "Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the programme directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack."

The board tacitly rejected the NSA's public claim that the bulk phone records collection may have made the difference in stopping a terrorist plot connected to cab drivers in San Diego - a rare case in which a government review body has specifically refuted the NSA's aggressive post-Snowden PR campaign.

"We believe that in only one instance over the past seven years has the programme arguably contributed to the identification of an unknown terrorism suspect. Even in that case, the suspect was not involved in planning a terrorist attack and there is reason to believe that the FBI may have discovered him without the contribution of the NSA's program," it found.

Obama endorsed moving the bulk phone records collection out of the NSA's hands and into those of a private entity, whose contours he left undefined in his Friday speech, his most extensive remarks on the surveillance to date.

But the president accepted that bulk collection was necessary to detect domestic connections to terrorism.

"I believe it is important that the capability that this programme is designed to meet is preserved," Obama said.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said yesterday that the White House disagreed with the board's assessment of the programme's legality.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

Original headline: US privacy board says NSA's bulk collection of phone data is illegal: US body rebukes Obama over mass surveillance Officials recommend that programme is shut down

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Source: (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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