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Obama in awkward spot after privacy board calls NSA snooping illegal

Jaikumar Vijayan | Jan. 24, 2014
The bipartisan group also concludes metadata collection is mostly useless.

A report Thursday by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) calling the National Security Agency's bulk phone records collection program illegal and mostly useless puts the Obama Administration in an awkward spot.

Less than a week ago, President Obama had described the program as vital to the NSA's anti-terror effort.

In a speech announcing modest changes to the program, the President had acknowledged privacy and civil rights concerns that have been raised over the collection of phone metadata records on U.S. residents.

Because of those concerns, the government would implement a new approach under which telecommunication companies or a third party would retain the bulk records rather than the NSA, Obama said. At the same time, he insisted that the metadata collection is important.

"The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible," Obama said last week, calling the effort "critical" and saying it does not involve the NSA review of the phone records of ordinary Americans.

That characterization is at odds with the PCLOB's recommendations.

The board is an independent bipartisan group created in 2007 to ensure that federal anti-terror initiatives do not compromise civil and privacy rights. The group is scheduled to release a report today on the government's authority to collect domestic phone metadata records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

But copies of the report leaked this morning to media outlets, which have widely reported on its findings.

According to those reports, the board's 238-page recommendation minces no words in describing the metadata program as minimally useful and not authorized under the Patriot Act, as the NSA has claimed.

The five-member board voted 3-2 to declare, that the Patriot Act does not provide a legal basis for the bulk collection of domestic phone records, MSNBC said, quoting from the report. In calling for an end to the collection program, the bBoard also noted that it violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and fails to comply with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

The report also recommended that government store phone records data for no more than three years instead of five years, as it does now. In addition, the government should always obtain court approval before it can search through the stored data, the group concluded.

The two members in the minority on the board maintained that the government may indeed have authority to collect phone records data under Section 215.

The White House Thursday defended the legality of the program and said it disagrees with the PCLOB's conclusions.


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