Government panel urges end to phone data spying

By Stephen Braun

Associated Press

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

Along with its call for ending bulk phone surveillance, the oversight board report outlined 11 other recommendations on surveillance policy, calling for more government transparency and other reforms aimed at bolstering civil liberties and privacy protections. The board called for special attorneys to provide independent views in some proceedings before the secret spy court, as opposed to Obama's plan for a panel of experts that would participate at times. The board also urged the administration to provide the public with clear explanations of the legal authority behind any surveillance affecting Americans.

Legal opinions and documents "describing the government's legal analysis should be made public so there can be a free and open debate regarding the law's scope," the board said. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have been criticized by civil liberties advocates and by tech industry officials for failing to provide clear public explanations of the decision-making behind their surveillance policies.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the board's report would "add to the growing chorus calling for an end to the government's dragnet collection of Americans' phone records." Leahy is co-sponsoring a bill that would shut down the phone program.

While the oversight board found consensus in some of its recommendations for transparency, its members were sharply divided when it came to the surveillance programs and their judicial oversight.

Two members, former Bush administration Justice Department lawyers Rachel Brand and Elisebeth Collins Cook, defended the bulk phone sweeps and said they were too valuable to shut down.

"I am concerned about the detrimental effect this superfluous second-guessing can have on our national security agencies and their staff," said Brand, who as a Justice Department lawyer defended USA Patriot Act legislation that provided the NSA with its authority to make the bulk phone collections.

But the oversight board's three other members — executive director David Medine, former federal judge Patricia Wald and civil liberties advocate James Dempsey — held firm for broad changes.

"When the government collects all of a person's telephone records, storing them for five years in a government database that is subjected to high-speed digital searching and analysis, the privacy implications go far beyond what can be revealed by the metadata of a single telephone call," the majority wrote.

Civil liberties groups applauded the board's report. "We agree with both its analysis and its principal conclusions," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Jaffer has pressed one of the lawsuits against the government seeking to shut down the bulk phone collections.

Meantime, the Justice Department accused the company that handled a background check on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden of defrauding the government by submitting more than 650,000 investigations that had not been properly completed.

That figure, the Justice Department said Wednesday in a civil complaint, amounted to 40 percent of the cases the company, U.S. Investigations Services Inc., sent to the government over a four-year span ending in September 2012.

In response, the company said that integrity and excellence are core values at USIS, which has 6,000 employees. USIS said it improved its oversight procedures and internal controls "since first learning of these allegations nearly two years ago."

The government said that USIS engaged in a practice known inside the company as "dumping" or "flushing." It involved releasing uncompleted background cases to the government and representing them as complete in order to increase revenue and profit.

AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace and AP writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS