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Independent watchdog panel says NSA phone data program is illegal, should end

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In a report issued Thursday (via the Washington Post), the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an executive branch watchdog, said that the NSA's bulk phone metadata collection program is illegal and should be shut down.

The board said that the statute on which the program was based, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, “does not provide an adequate basis to support this program.” The five-member panel issued a split decision.

Two members, Rachel L. Brand and Elisebeth Collins Cook, who served in the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration, said that the program should continue, but should be modified to include additional privacy protections.

Three members voted to shut down the program; they were Chairman David Medine, a former Federal Trade Commission official in the Clinton administration; James X. Dempsey, a public policy expert with the privacy group, the Center for Democracy & Technology; and Patricia M. Wald, a retired federal appeals court judge named to the bench by President Jimmy Carter.

Reportedly, the panel was unanimous in ten other recommendations regarding the NSA's phone metadata collection program, including deleting raw phone records after three years rather than five and tightening access to the results of queries.

The PCLOB’s recommendation to end the program goes further than that of an Obama administration appointed review panel, which last month said that the NSA database should be moved out of government hands, but that the government should find a way to keep the program going.

That option left open the possibility that a third party holding the data. Last Friday, speaking on the matter, U.S. President Barack Obama recommended just that, among other changes.

Congress made the PCLOB an independent agency in 2007 -- notably, during the Bush administration. It only recently became fully operational.