Government panel urges end to phone data spying

By Stephen Braun

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23 2014 12:09 p.m. MST

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided government task force that reviewed the National Security Agency's surveillance program for four months has urged President Barack Obama to shut down the agency's bulk collection of phone data and purge its massive inventory of millions of Americans' calling records, The Associated Press has learned.

The recommendation from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to abandon the NSA's phone surveillance was more sweeping than Obama's decision to curtail the program and a similar proposal from another panel of experts. That panel, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, advised Obama in December to restrict phone surveillance to limited court-ordered sweeps.

The oversight board's new 234-page report — a copy of which was obtained by the AP — contained strong dissents from two of the board's five members — former Bush administration national security lawyers who recommended that the government retain its broad phone surveillance authority. The board disclosed key parts of its report to Obama earlier this month before he unveiled his plans during a speech last week to the nation.

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. And he narrowed the NSA's bulk collection by insisting on close supervision by a secret federal intelligence court and reducing the wide chain of calls that the NSA may track. Phone companies have said they do not want to take responsibility for overseeing the data under standards set by the NSA.

Warning that the NSA's massive daily intake of calling records "raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties," the three-member majority of the oversight board said the government should end the surveillance program and "purge the database of telephone records that have been collected and stored during the program's operation." The board said the NSA should instead seek records directly from phone service providers using "existing legal authorities."

The recommendation to purge the phone database tackles one area that Obama sidestepped in his speech — what to do with hundreds of millions of files already in government hands. National security officials have said the duration of data retention should be addressed by a legal review to be completed by March.

The board concluded 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 authorized by President George W. Bush. The board also said the surveillance raised constitutional search and free speech concerns. Two federal judges have split in recent rulings over the constitutionality of the phone sweeps.

A White House official said Thursday that the Obama administration disagreed with the oversight board's stance on phone sweeps. "The administration believes the program is lawful," said national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. She added that Obama "believes we can and should make changes in the program that will give the American people greater confidence in it."

The NSA's surveillance programs and other data mining operations began coming to light last year, drawing intense criticism after revelations fueled by an estimated 1.7 million documents taken by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden and handed over to several journalists around the world.

Most controversial has been the NSA's collection of data on Americans' telephone calls and Internet messages. The NSA says it does not listen in on the phone calls or read the Internet messages without specific court orders on a case-by-case basis as it tracks potential terrorist plots.

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