A US government review panel has warned the National Security Agency’s daily collection of citizens’ phone records is illegal, recommending the president abandon the program and destroy the hundreds of millions of phone records.
The recommendations by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board go further than President Barack Obama is willing to accept and increase pressure on congress to make changes.
The panel’s 234-page report included dissents from two of the board’s five members – former Bush administration national security lawyers who recommended that the government keep collecting the phone records.
The board described key parts of its report to Obama this month before he announced his plans last week to change the government’s surveillance activities.
In that speech, Obama said the bulk phone collection program would continue for the time being.
He directed the Justice Department and intelligence officials to find ways to end the government’s control over the phone data.
He is also insisting on close supervision by a secretive federal intelligence court and reducing the breadth of phone records the NSA can investigate.
Phone companies have said they do not want to take responsibility for overseeing the data under standards set by the NSA.
In addition to concluding that the daily collection of phone records was illegal, the board also determined that the practice was ineffective.
“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” it said, and added, “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.”
It said the NSA should instead seek individual records relevant to terror cases directly from phone service providers under existing laws.
The board wrote that the phone surveillance did not have a “viable legal foundation” under the Patriot Act, which was used to provide legal backing for the operation after it was secretly authorised by President George W Bush.
The White House disagreed with the oversight board.
“The administration believes the program is lawful,” said national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
The NSA’s surveillance programs and other data mining operations came to light last year, drawing intense criticism after revelations fuelled by an estimated 1.7 million documents taken by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden and handed over to several journalists.