An independent federal privacy watchdog has concluded, in a 3-2 vote, that the National Security Agency’s program to collect bulk phone call records has provided only “minimal” benefits in counterterrorism efforts, is illegal and should be shut down, reports the New York Times. The findings are in the first major public statement by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which Congress made an independent agency in 2007. The report is likely to inject a significant new voice into the debate over surveillance, underscoring that the issue was not settled by a speech President Obama gave last week.
The Obama administration portrays the bulk collection program as useful and lawful while acknowledging concerns about privacy and potential abuse. The board lays out what may be the most detailed critique of the government's once-secret legal theory that a law known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to obtain business records deemed “relevant” to an investigation, can be legitimately interpreted as authorizing the NSA to collect all U.S. calling records. 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,” the report said. “As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program.”