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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

President Advisory Board Assails NSA Surveillance

(CN) - Domestic surveillance of millions of Americans' phone and Internet data is unconstitutional and must be stopped, a government advisory board said in a new report.

The 238-page report came out Thursday from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which is appointed by the U.S. president to advise the government on ensuring Americans' privacy and civil liberties.

Its subject is the "Telephone Records Program" that Edward Snowden brought to light in June 2013 with the revelation of secret court rulings authorizing the National Security Agency's mass-collection of telephone records.

The report challenges the government's interpretation of the limits of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the government has said allows it to access the last five years of telephone metadata for all Americans' phone calls.

"The Section 215 bulk telephone records 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 states. "As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program."

In a statement about the report, the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted its similarity to the recommendations and conclusions that President Barack Obama put out last week.

A lack of evidence that the program actually keeps America safe is also noteworthy, according to the report.

"Based on the information provided to the board, including classified briefings and documentation, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation," the report states. "Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack."

Two federal judges issued differing opinions on the NSA's practices. One said it was unconstitutional and must be stopped, and another said it was essential to counter terrorism.

The federal government, meanwhile, says its practices are buoyed by all three branches of the federal government and are perfectly legal.

Obama's recent discussion of the program laid out several recommendations to promote transparency and protect privacy, but his plan was criticized for its wiggle room and failure to address the program's constitutionality.

The EFF represents a coalition of groups including Unitarian churches, gun-rights advocates and the Council on American-Islamic Relations challenging the NSA in San Francisco.

One section of the report promises a future analysis of a second government program involving a database called Prism that stores "the content of electronic communications, including phone calls and emails, where the targets are reasonably believed to be non-U.S. persons located outside the United States."

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act is the basis for this program, and the board plans to consider whether "the program is consistent with statutory authority, complies with the Constitution, and strikes the appropriate balance between national security and privacy and civil liberties."

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