Privacy board report last straw on NSA surveillance program, lawmakers say

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Lawmakers are renewing their calls for an end to a controversial surveillance program that collects data about virtually all American phone calls, citing the newest recommendations from a government privacy board.

This newest set of recommendations “spells the final end of the government's bulk collection” of phone call data, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board — tasked with overseeing the country’s surveillance activities — released its first report on the controversial surveillance programs made public by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year.

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The board recommended that the government end the phone data program, questioning its efficacy and saying that it “lacks a viable legal foundation” and “raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value.”

Last week, President Obama outlined changes he plans to make to the surveillance program, including requiring intelligence agencies to get court approval before accessing the phone data.

Critics of the NSA and its phone data program say Obama didn’t go far enough in his speech and are now pointing to the privacy board’s report as evidence that more needs to be done.

“The president's recommendations last week did not go far enough to rein in the out-of-control National Security Agency,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who has questioned the intelligence community on whether it spies on officials — said in a statement.

“This report underscores that the collection of records on virtually every phone call made in the United States is an unconstitutional violation of the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment,” he said, calling on Congress to “pass strong legislation to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), co-author of the USA Freedom Act, which would end bulk surveillance programs, said the report highlights the need for congressional action.

“The report appropriately calls into question the legality and constitutionality of the program, and underscores the need to change the law to rein in the government’s overbroad interpretation” of its surveillance authority, he said in a statement.

Schiff called for congressional action before next year’s sunset of a surveillance-enabling national security law.

“Congress will not re-authorize bulk collection of this data when it expires next year, but Congress should not wait for the program to expire on its own,” he said. “Rather we should work to restructure the program now.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) vowed to consider the report as his committee looks at the phone data program, which “is in need of significant reform.”

In his statement, Goodlatte said he plans to hold a hearing “soon” to examine Obama’s announced plans to rein in surveillance, as well as the recommendations from the privacy board and a White House-convened group of privacy and intelligence experts.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and an ardent defender of the NSA, slammed the report, accusing the privacy board of overstepping its boundaries. 

Rogers pointed to the 17 federal judges who, in 38 cases, “examined this issue and found the telephone metadata program to be legal, concluding this program complies with both the statutory text and with the U.S. Constitution.”

The privacy board should “advise policymakers on civil liberties and privacy aspects of national security programs, and not partake in unwarranted legal analysis” or “go outside its expertise to opine on the effectiveness of counterterrorism programs,” Rogers said in a statement.