Watchdog Group Finds NSA Phone Data Program Illegal

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Have you ever seen a more ominous building? Source: National Security Agency.

A report issued Thursday by a government watchdog struck down the National Security Agency’s (or, NSA) bulk collection of phone calls, saying it is illegal. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (or, PCLOB) undertook the investigation. The Board consists of five members, two of whom rejected the findings. Rachel L. Brand and Elisebeth Collins Cook disagreed with the conclusion that the program was illegal. Brand and Cook were Justice Department lawyers under the Bush administration.

The report goes further than President Obama did in a speech last week when he discussed reforming the NSA. Although there are points where the President and PCLOB agree, the President wished for the program overall to remain intact. In determining the legality, the watchdog was concerned with Section 215 and 702 programs and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (or, FISA) Court. Of the report’s seven sections, five discuss Section 215; another report will address the Section 702 program.

In order to evaluate the NSA program, the PCLOB studied classified briefings, met with members of the White House Staff, a former FISA court judge, advocates on both sides of the issue, and companies involved in technology and communications. During the investigation, the intelligence agencies gave full support to the PCLOB.

The report does not find “any evidence of bad faith or misconduct on the part of any government officials or agents involved with the program. Rather, the compliance issues were recognized by the FISC — and are recognized by the Board — as a product of the program’s technological complexity and vast scope, illustrating the risks inherent in such a program.”

Section 215, which was “designed to enable the FBI to acquire records that a business has in its possession, as part of an FBI investigation, when records are relevant to the investigation.” However, the PCLOB states, the NSA’s program does not closely mirror what is stipulated in Section 215. Even though the “program has been conducted in good faith, section 215 does not provide an adequate legal basis to support the program.”

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