Federal Agency Recommends Shutdown of Bulk Phone-Records Collection Program
January 24, 2014 • 11:16AM

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) has concluded in a report released Thursday, that the National Security Agency's bulk phonecall-records collection program "has provided only 'minimal' benefits in counterterrorism efforts, is illegal and should be shut down," in the words of the New York Times. The program "lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, 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.

The PCLOB was created by Congress in 2004 on recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, as part of the Executive Office of the President, and in 2007 was reconstituted by Congress as an independent agency in the Executive Branch.

The Board's analysis of the program and its recommendations to end it, echo those previously made by a panel selected by President Obama to study the matter and advise him. These two groupings were among those with whom the President met (others included the intelligence agency chiefs and heads of telecomm companies) prior to his speech last week in which he said the Government would continue but reform the program.

The Washington Post reported that "... the board found that it is impossible that all the records collected — billions daily — could be relevant to a single investigation 'without redefining that word in a manner that is circular, unlimited in scope.' Moreover, instead of compelling phone companies to turn over records already in their possession, the program requires them to furnish newly generated call data on a daily basis. 'This is an approach lacking foundation in the statute,' the report said. 'At its core, the approach boils down to the proposition that essentially all telephone records are relevant to essentially all international terrorism investigations,' the report said. This approach, it said, 'at minimum, is in deep tension with the statutory requirement that items obtained through a Section 215 order be sought for 'an investigation,' not for the purpose of enhancing the government's counterterrorism capabilities generally.'"

The Board found, said the Post, that "'The connections revealed by the extensive database of telephone records gathered under the program will necessarily include relationships established among individuals and groups for political, religious, and other expressive purposes,' it said. 'Compelled disclosure to the government of information revealing these associations can have a chilling effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights.'"

The Post quoted the Board, "'We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation," and that "Moreover, 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."

Senator Leahy Calls at Davos Conference for End of U.S. Bulk Data Collection

The Hill reported Wednesday, that during a panel discussion at the Davos World Economic Forum, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee — said that government officials "don't make ourselves safer by wiretapping or investigating every single person." He said, "In the United States, which should be one of the freest countries [in which] to express yourself, we are collecting far too much information. It is not making us safer." He said of the data-collection abuses, that "Just because we can do it in the United States doesn't mean we should. I don't think it makes us safer any more than the horrible excesses of Watergate and J. Edgar Hoover and all made us safer. It made us less safe."

Sen. Leahy is sponsoring the USA FREEDOM Act in the Senate with 19 co-sponsors. The House version with the same name, sponsored by federal Rep. James Sensenbrenner, has 124 co-sponsors. The Hill summarizes, "The bill would reform the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves spy agencies' surveillance efforts, end the bulk collection of data about phone calls and limit government officials' use of National Security Letters, which force people to hand over information."