WASHINGTON — The controversial surveillance program that collects the telephone records of millions of Americans has done little to assist U.S. counter-terrorism efforts and should be shut down in its current form, a government panel has concluded.
In yet another challenge to the legitimacy of the National Security Agency program, the report released Thursday by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board also concluded that the bulk collection of so-called metadata is illegal.
The 234-page document, authored by the watchdog group created by Congress, comes less than a week after President Obama called for the restructuring of the program, exposed in detail last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
A separate panel of intelligence experts in December also recommended a reorganization of the surveillance program.
"The bulk telephone records program lacks a viable legal foundation … 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,'' a majority of the five-member board found.
Two members dissented, saying they believed the program was supported by the law and had been reauthorized repeatedly by federal judges assigned to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees surveillance requests by the government.
Board member Rachel Brand, a former Justice Department official in the administration of President George W. Bush, said she could not recommend ending the program "without an adequate alternative already in place.'' And she termed the privacy intrusion created by the bulk collection program — which does not include the contents of the communications or the identifications of the callers — to be "quite small.''
Elisebeth Collins Cook, another former Bush Justice Department official, said that while she believed the program should be "modified, I do not believe it lacks statutory authorization or must be shut down.''
"Fundamentally, I believe that the (privacy) board has erred in its approach to this program, which has been authorized by no fewer than 15 ... judges, subject to extensive executive branch oversight and appropriately briefed to Congress,'' Cook said in written dissent.
The board's report represented one of the most comprehensive reviews of the government's strategy since details of its operation were revealed last year by Snowden. The former contractor has since been granted temporary asylum in Russia to avoid prosecution in the U.S. on espionage-related charges.
Snowden's unauthorized disclosures also have prompted a sustained public debate over the bounds of government surveillance powers, which has forced the Obama administration to propose changes to its surveillance operations.
"We welcome the board's report, and we agree with its principal conclusions,'' American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said Thursday. "The board's report makes even clearer that the government's surveillance policies, as well as our system of oversight, are in need of far-reaching reform. The report should spur immediate action by both the administration and Congress.''
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested the privacy board's review likely "spells the end'' of the controversial program.
"Not only does the report raise serious questions about the statutory and constitutional foundation of the program, but it once again confirms both the limited national security value of the program and the very considerable risk to the privacy of the American people,'' Schiff said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the congressional panel would "review'' the board's conclusions.
"The telephone data collection program is in need of significant reform in order to regain the trust of the American people and to protect our civil liberties,'' Goodlatte said.