US federal watchdog calls for end to NSA phone records program

An independent federal oversight board condemns NSA surveillance in a report due for release Thursday

In a report to be released Thursday, the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties board says the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records is illegal and should stop, according to the New York Times and the Washington Post, which received advance copies of the document.

The board is an independent federal agency, and the report marks its first comprehensive statement on the controversial program disclosed last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

According to reports, the document critiques the government's legal rationale for the NSA program, Section 215 of the Patriot Act which was passed in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. It also questions the utility of the program, looking closely at some investigations where it was used and saying that there was "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 Times quoted the report as saying that the program "lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, 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. As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program."

The report recommends that raw phone records be deleted after three years rather than five, and the access to search results be limited further. Those recommendations were unanimous on the part of the five-member board, although two of the members, both former Justice Department lawyers during the George W. Bush administration, dissented from the finding that the program was illegal and the recommendation that it be shut down entirely, the Times said.

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Elizabeth Heichler

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