A government review panel warned Thursday that the National Security Agency’s daily collection of Americans’ phone records is illegal and recommended that President Barack Obama abandon the program and destroy the hundreds of millions of phone records it already has collected.
The recommendations by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board go further than 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 also insisted 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.