US privacy board finds NSA phone surveillance program illegal

[JURIST] The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) [official website], an independent agency created by Congress to protect American privacy under anti-terrorism laws, issued a report on Thursday calling the NSA's [official website] metadata program illegal and saying that it should be ended. In a 3-2 vote [WP report], the five-member board said that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act [text], the statute upon which the program was based, does not provide an adequate basis to support the program. This assertion rejects the reasoning [WP report] of at least 15 federal surveillance court judges and the Justice Department. According to their statement, all of the records collected could not possibly all be relevant to a single investigation and that the approach can essentially be summarized as treating all telephone records as being relevant to all terrorism investigations. The board's dissenters, along with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee [official websites], defended the metadata program, with Rogers calling the board's legal analysis unwarranted.

The revelations surrounding NSA surveillance programs [JURIST backgrounder] have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. Earlier this month US President Barack Obama announced detailed plans [JURIST report] to change surveilance policy, curbing the abilities of intelligence agencies to collect and use American phone data. Also this month the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an appeal to a federal district court ruling that held that the NSA program is likely unconstitutional [JURIST reports]. In September the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released [JURIST report] a previously classified opinion [text, PDF] explaining why an NSA program to keep records of Americans' phone calls is constitutional. Also in September the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] urged the Obama administration [JURIST report] to curb the FBI's surveillance powers. In August the Council of Europe [official website] expressed concern [JURIST report] over the UK reaction to the exposure of the US surveillance program. Lawmakers have also called for a criminal investigation into the activities of Edward Snowden, who came forward in early June as the whistleblower in the NSA surveillance scandal [JURIST podcast]. JURIST Guest Columnist Christina Wells argues that the broad provisions of the Espionage Act [text], under which Snowden is charged, raise significant First Amendment concerns [JURIST op-ed].

 

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