The National Security Agency program to collect vast quantities of information about phone calls is illegal and should be shut down, according to a federal civil liberties board.
According to an advanced copy of the panel's report, received by The New York Times, the NSA’s phone records collection “lacks a viable legal foundation” and “raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value.”
The 238-page report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) will likely bolster critics of the spy agency on Capitol Hill and throughout the country.
The report will be officially released on Thursday afternoon.
Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s security and human rights program, said the PCLOB report “should be the final nail in the coffin” for the collection of phone records, known as metadata.
“Congress should move to end the program. But legislators should go further and restrict the administration's bulk collection of any type of personal information, whether of Americans or anyone else,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
According to the Times, two of the PCLOB’s five members disagreed with the conclusion that the program was illegal. Both of the dissenters were lawyers in the Justice Department during former President George W. Bush’s administration.
The panel also reportedly recommended it should be harder for government officials to search the phone records database, and the data should be deleted after three years instead of five.
The PCLOB report comes nearly a week after President Obama outlined a series of changes he would like to see at the country’s intelligence agencies. The president met with the five members of the board in recent weeks and has been fully briefed on their thinking, according to the White House.
In his speech at the Justice Department on Friday, Obama expressed support for the phone records collection program but said it should be changed so the government does not hold the records. He also said officials should be required to obtain a court order before searching the database.
The NSA program could “prove valuable in a crisis,” he said.
“For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review phone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort," Obama said.
Critics have asked the president for a wholesale end to the controversial program, which was revealed in documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.