Privacy Board Recommends Eliminating NSA Phone Record Program

A report released Thursday by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommends that the National Security Administration's bulk phone record program be eliminated. The report finds that not only is the program illegal, it's also ineffective. These findings come less than a week after President Obama called for keeping the program, but only after making some changes.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A new report recommends ending the NSA program that collects the phone records of Americans. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board advises the president. The bipartisan agency found that the phone surveillance program falls short on several counts. For one thing, they say, there is no legal basis for it. And for another, it doesn't work. Today's report comes less than a week after President Obama called for keeping the program with some major changes.

We'll talk with the head of the privacy board after a report on the board's public meeting. NPR Justice Department Carrie Johnson was there today. And she joins us now. Hi.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And what were the problems the board found with the NSA phone records program?

JOHNSON: In short, Robert, the board found the program violated both the letter and the spirit of the USA Patriot Act, that law passed by Congress shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The law, the board says, was designed to apply to specific, targeted FBI investigations, and the request for information needed to be relevant, not the kind of broad, bulk collection of billions of American phone records that the U.S. has been doing for seven years.

Finally, the board said that forcing telecommunications companies to turn over records they've not yet generated over a period of 90 days is nothing that was contemplated in the law. And when the board went back and looked at the legislative history, there was no sense from the legislative history that Congress or the public could have known that billions of American phone metadata records had been compiled.

SIEGEL: Carrie, the board's main finding about the phone program was not unanimous. What were the dissents and why did they disagree?

JOHNSON: There were two dissents, by Beth Cook and Rachel Brand, both of whom had worked in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. They pointed out that President Bush and now President Obama both had defended the law and the program and found it legal. They also said that 17 judges on the Foreign Surveillance Court had also cleared the law over a period of years.

They said that the intelligence community and the NSA had been acting in good faith and, essentially, it was a value judgment. If this program could help investigators figure out quickly whether somebody up to no good was operating inside the U.S., it should be kept.

SIEGEL: So what happens next with this?

JOHNSON: President Obama says he wants ideas by the end of March from the attorney general and the head of - the director of national intelligence about how to fix this program, who should store this data. But you know what, Robert, this is one way station in what Jim Dempsey, the board member of the privacy board, called a long journey. There's not going to be any clear way to restructure this program easily.

And the real deadline, Robert, might be June 2015 when Congress has to figure out whether it wants to re-authorize this part of the Patriot Act or to throw it out altogether.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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