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Watchdog: White House has done little on surveillance reform

A federal privacy watchdog tasked with reviewing the National Security Agency’s controversial spy programs said Thursday the White House has agreed to many of its suggested reforms but taken little action.

“Many of the recommendations directed at the Administration have yet to be fully satisfied, with the Administration having taken only partial steps, at most, toward implementing them,” said the report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB).

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In 2014, the PCLOB issued two reports. In January, the board's first review lambasted the NSA’s program to collect bulk data on Americans telephone records, calling it borderline unconstitutional and telling the White House to axe the practice. The second report in July largely gave a stamp of approval to the NSA’s programs collecting troves of Internet data.

The White House has yet to enact the PCLOB's major suggestion — kill the telephone records program.

“The Administration has not implemented the Board’s recommendation to halt the NSA’s telephone records program,” the PCLOB said.

Instead, the White House has urged Congress to pass legislation to curb the NSA’s surveillance authority and end the program. The report acknowledges these efforts, but didn’t let the administration off the hook.

“It should be noted that the Administration can end the bulk telephone records program at any time, without congressional involvement,” the group said.

Lawmakers did come close in late 2014 to passing a bill, the USA Freedom Act, that would have cut the program and transferred the responsibility of maintaining telephone data to the major telecom companies.

“While legislation like the USA FREEDOM Act would be needed to retain the unique capabilities of the program without collecting telephone records in bulk, the Board examined those capabilities and concluded that they have provided only ‘limited value’ in combatting terrorism,” the report said.

The administration has been more receptive to the PCLOB’s offerings on reforming the NSA’s Internet surveillance programs. Most of the board's suggestions related to heightened oversight.

On this count, “the Administration has accepted virtually all recommendations,” the report said, “and has made substantial progress toward implementing many of them.”

Across both of its reviews, the PCLOB repeatedly urged intelligence agencies to be more transparent about their legal justifications and the scope of their surveillance capabilities.

The report released Thursday included vague references to upcoming progress on this front.

“Intelligence Community representatives have advised us that they are committed to implementing this recommendation,” the report said. “They will soon be releasing” a transparency report with more information, the group added. 

The PCLOB also faulted the administration for failing to make progress on "a methodology" to determine the effectiveness of these surveillance programs in fighting terrorism. 

Many NSA critics argue the agency could counter possible terrorist threats just as effectively using less intrusive methods.

"Determining the efficacy and value of particular counterterrorism programs is critical," the PCLOB said. "Without such determinations, policymakers and courts cannot effectively weigh the interests of the government in conducting a program against the intrusions on privacy and civil liberties that it may cause."