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NSA snooping illegal, violates privacy says US watchdog

A government advisory panel has said that the bulk telephone data collection by a US intelligence agency is a massive violation of civil liberties and should be shut down.

WASHINGTON: The bulk telephone data collection by a US intelligence agency is a massive violation of civil liberties and should be shut down, a government advisory panel said Thursday.

A report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, concluded the National Security Agency's huge phone metadata program is illegal in several ways, and provides little or no value to the fight against terrorism.

The 238-page report said the program "has shown minimal value in safeguarding the nation from terrorism."

"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," the report said.

And the panel said the program is not authorized by the Patriot Act, the law passed following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It said the program violates constitutional guarantees of free speech and protection against unreasonable searches, and also fails to comply with a federal privacy law.

Moreover, it said the program threatens to have "debilitating consequences for journalism" because "sources in a position to offer crucial information about newsworthy topics may remain silent out of fear that their telephone records could be used to trace their contacts."

"The Section 215 bulk telephone records program lacks a viable legal foundation... implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value," the report said. "As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program."

The report said the NSA stretches the interpretation of what may be "relevant" to a terrorism investigation.

"The government has argued... that essentially the entire nation's calling records are 'relevant' to every counterterrorism investigation," it said.

"The implication of this reasoning is... everything becomes relevant to its investigations. The word 'relevant' becomes limited only by the government's technological capacity to ingest information and sift through it efficiently."

The board, which was set up to create safeguards for privacy and civil liberties for stepped-up anti-terrorism efforts, rejected the notion the NSA program could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

"The program supplied no advance notice of attempted attacks on the New York City subway, the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing, or the failed Times Square car bombing," the report said.

"We find little reason to expect that it is likely to provide significant value, much less essential value, in safeguarding the nation in the future."

But the five-member board, which began work in 2012, years after Congress called for its creation, split in its conclusions. Two members said they disagreed with key conclusions.

Board member Rachel Brand wrote in her dissent that she believed the program is lawful, and she said that if the United States is hit with another large-scale terrorist attack, "the public will engage in recriminations against the intelligence community for failure to prevent it."

The other dissenter, Elisebeth Collins Cook, said the program "should be modified," but that "I do not believe it lacks statutory authorization or must be shut down.... I disagree with the board's analysis of the efficacy of the program."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration sees the program as "lawful," but that President Barack Obama has already outlined reforms.

Civil liberties groups, meanwhile, hailed the report.

Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the report, saying the panel correctly concluded that the NSA's call-records dragnet "is illegal and ineffective and presents a serious threat to civil liberties."

The report "invalidates the government's argument that the program is lawful," said Nuala O'Connor, president of the digital rights activist Center for Democracy and Technology.

Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International USA said the report "should be the final nail in the coffin for the bulk collection of US telephony metadata under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Congress should move to end the program."

The report comes one month after a special panel named by Obama urged scaling back electronic spying powers to protect privacy rights and shore up public trust.

The NSA programs have been in focus since details leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden were published in news reports, outraging many activists at home as well as US allies also caught up the data sweep.

Snowden was set to make his first public chat online, answering questions from the public, later Thursday.

US Attorney General Eric Holder said in an interview he is not prepared to talk about clemency for Snowden, who has been charged with espionage.

The authorities "would engage in conversation" if he accepted responsibility for leaking government secrets but said granting clemency "would be going too far," Holder told MSNBC.

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