Gov't watchdog calls NSA's call records collection illegal

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board says that the NSA's collection of bulk phone records should be shut down immediately.

Another influential voice will be chiming in on the National Security Agency's (NSA) collection of data, and it appears the government agency won't like what it hears.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) on Thursday will publish a 238-page report that it compiled independently to determine the legality and value of the NSA's data-collection efforts. According to The New York Times, which received an early copy of the report, the government watchdog took aim at the NSA's collection of bulk phone call records, saying that the effort is illegal and should be shut down. The PCLOB even argued that collecting such data provides only "minimal" value when fighting terrorists.

The board's report will add yet another dissenting voice to the NSA's surveillance efforts since Edward Snowden leaked documents showing its data-collection techniques. President Barack Obama last week was also somewhat critical of the NSA's tactics, urging some changes to its bulk collection of data but stopping short of saying the entire effort should be shuttered.

According to the Times, the board was especially concerned by the rationale behind the data collection. According to the board, the NSA derives its power to obtain records in bulk from Section 215 of the controversial Patriot Act. That section of the law gives the FBI express consent to obtain records that are considered "relevant" to an ongoing investigation. Considering that any calls could be "relevant" to an ongoing investigation the NSA might be conducting, the agency could use that as legal cover.

The board, however, sees it differently, and according to the Times, says that such an interpretation "implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments [to the US Constitution]." It provided several recommendations to the government, according to the Times, including limiting access to call records and deleting data more quickly.

Interestingly, the five-member board was not in total agreement that the NSA's program is illegal, and was seemingly divided down party lines. The board's chairman and former FTC chairman during the Clinton Administration, David Medine, was joined by former federal judge appointed by Jimmy Carter and a civil liberties advocate in arguing that the program is illegal. Two Justice Department lawyers in the George W. Bush Administration argued that the programs were legal.

The PCLOB will release its entire report later on Thursday.

This story has been updated throughout the morning.

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