The White House sharply disagreed today with a report from an oversight board that concluded the government's surveillance program is illegally collecting phone records of Americans and recommended the practice be discontinued.
"We simply disagree with the board's analysis on the legality of the program," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
The report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board comes one week after President Obama introduced his suggestions for reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, including transferring the storage of metadata away from the government. The president met with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in the weeks prior to his final decision.
The PCLOB's majority maintains that the Bush and Obama administrations have subverted the law, applying a section of the PATRIOT Act which the administration claims allows the NSA to collect and store vast troves of data on Americans' phone calls. What the government has been doing, the panel says, "bears almost no resemblance" to the text of Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, and is therefore illegal.
The Obama administration argues that "15 judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on 36 separate occasions over the past seven years" have approved the NSA's actions.
"[T]he statute permits only the FBI to obtain items for use in its investigations; it does not authorize the NSA to collect anything," the report concludes.
The report is an initial effort by the board to call the government on its surveillance practices, a mission the 9/11 Commission intended for the panel when it recommended its creation almost 10 years ago.
Because the data collection intrudes on Americans' privacy to limited degrees of effectiveness in preventing attacks, the board recommends that the program be scrapped. But at the very least, members urge the government to reduce its database to three years' worth of call records as opposed to five, with analysts going out only "two hops" instead of three, as Obama ordered last week. They also urge the appointment of a privacy advocate for the FISA court.
The panel takes on the administration's early argument that Congress acquiesced to the government's actions by reauthorizing Sec. 215 in 2011. The report says that line of thinking "would undermine the public's ability to know what the law is and hold their elected representatives accountable for their legislative choices."
The privacy board was established by Congress in 2007, but it only had a quorum to conduct business beginning in 2012. The panel's investigation into the NSA's practices began immediately after the Edward Snowden leaks last spring.
The privacy board's membership includes three Democratic appointees and two Republicans. This first report deals only with the NSA metadata program, under Sec. 215. The privacy panel says it will issue another report dealing with collection of Internet data, at a later date.