NSA Telephone Spying Is Illegal and Useless, Asserts Obama's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board


NSA Spying Protest

Last summer, President Barack Obama asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to look into the effectiveness and legalities of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program. The Board was especially to investigate the NSA's clandestine collection of essentially all of the phone records of Americans. The PCLOB was established to monitor the activities of federal law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and spy agencies in an effort to make sure that the executive branch is not violating the civil liberties of Americans.

According to the Washington Post and the New York Times, the PCLOB report, which will be issued today, finds that the NSA's massive domestic surveillance program is illegal and largely useless and should be ended. From the Times:

The program "lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215 [of the PATRIOT Act], 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."

The panel further noted, as the Post reports:

"We have not identified 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 counterterrorism investigation," said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. "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."…

"The Board believes that the Section 215 program has contributed only minimal value in combating terrorism beyond what the government already achieves through these and other alternative means," the report said. "Cessation of the program would eliminate the privacy and civil liberties concerns associated with bulk collection without unduly hampering the government's efforts, while ensuring that any governmental requests for telephone calling records are tailored to the needs of specific investigations."

The Board explicitly rejected claims made by NSA enablers that the agencies massive telephone spying program could have prevented the 9/11 atrocities or helped disrupt the New York City subway bombing plot.

The PCLOB report finds that the NSA claim that the telephone calling data of all Americans is "relevant to an authorized investigation" is an absurd interpretation of the PATRIOT Act. The Post reports that …

… the board found that it is impossible that all the records collected — billions daily — could be relevant to a single investigation "without redefining that word in a manner that is circular, unlimited in scope."…"At its core, the approach boils down to the proposition that essentially all telephone records are relevant to essentially all international terrorism investigations," the report said. This approach, it said, "at minimum, is in deep tension with the statutory requirement that items obtained through a Section 215 order be sought for 'an investigation,' not for the purpose of enhancing the government's counterterrorism capabilities generally."

The Board rejected the proposal that there should be a central repository holding data on the phone calls of all Americans. Federal agencies can seek data from individual telephone companies on a case-by-case basis using constitutionally authorized procedures, e.g., warrants issued on the basis of probable cause.

President Obama was briefed on the Board's findings before his speech last Friday in which he outlined a couple of very feeble proposals for reforming the NSA's unconstitutional domestic spying operations. He evidently didn't listen to his own oversight board.