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Independent panel denounces ‘chilling’ NSA program as illegal, demands end

Published time: January 23, 2014 14:42
Reuters/ Larry Downing

Reuters/ Larry Downing

An independent review board has labeled NSA hoarding of phone data ‘illegal’, adding that while it poses a serious threat to civil liberties, it was unable to find a “single instance” of a threat to the US where the program made any difference.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) released an acerbic report stating that the statute upon which the NSA program was based – Section 215 of the Patriot Act – does not “provide an adequate basis to support this program.” A pre-release was seen by both the New York Times and Washington Post.

PCLOB is an independent agency which was established by Congress in 2004, having been a recommendation by the 9/11 commission. It is intended to advise the executive branch of government on matters of privacy and civil liberties, related to terrorism, and ensure that Americans’ rights are not infringed upon in the establishment of more stringent anti-terrorism measures.

The program has a “chilling effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights,” on account of the revelations of relations and connections between individuals and groups, the report further stated. US citizens have constitutional rights to free speech, association and privacy.

While US President Barack Obama gave a speech on Friday saying that he thought the NSA database should be taken out of the hands of the government, he did not call for a stop to the program. However, the PCLOB opposed any legal mandate on the companies to retain any data for longer than they currently do.

In addition to the infringement of first amendment rights, the report noted the apparently complete ineffectualness of the program in the hunt for terror suspects.

“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” it noted. “Moreover, we are aware of 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 238 page text cited examples of times when the collection of phone records proved useless. The panel had cited 12 separate cases while making their conclusion, including the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway.

However, the panel itself was divided – two of its five members concluded that if the program was modified to accommodate additional privacy protections, it should continue, the newspapers said.

Revelations as to the extent of NSA surveillance of its own population – and on a global level – emerged via former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden in June last year. The exposures have caused divisions in Congress as to the legality and value of the program, as well as inciting a severe public backlash about the ethics of the program.