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NSA surveillance program approved by bipartisan oversight group

Collecting massive amounts of data does not violate the Constitution, an Obama-appointed panel ruled Wednesday.
A camera tree used to photograph vehicles in Washington.
A camera tree used to photograph vehicles in Washington.

The NSA did not overstep constitutional boundaries with the massive data collection activities brought to light by Edward Snowden last year, according to an oversight board tasked with reviewing a wide-reaching National Security Agency surveillance program.

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The group's decision, released Wednesday, also found that the program, which allowed for warrantless surveillance of international communications, including those of Americans, had been an effective tool in the prevention of terrorism. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is a bipartisan group appointed by President Obama to review programs that have allowed the NSA to monitor data such as email, online chats, and text messages.

"Overall the board has found that the information the program (Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) collects has been valuable and effective in protecting the national security," said Chairman David Medine. However,  he continued, "outside of this fundamental core, certain sections of the 702 program do raise privacy concerns and push the program close to the line of constitutional reasonableness."

Section 702 of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a provision added in 2008, "is not a bulk collection program or dragnet," board member Rachel Brand said. "The government may never target anyone located inside the United States. The government must select specific targets for surveillance and collect only the communications of those targets."

The board also issued ten recommendations for minor changes "at the margins of the program," as board member Elisebeth Collins Cook said.

However, civil liberties advocates viewed the decision as a blow to privacy and an endorsement of constitutional violations. “Sadly, the Board has failed to fulfill its responsibility here, which is to ensure that counterterrorism policies safeguard privacy and civil liberties,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program and the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement. “The collection of Americans’ phone calls and e-mails without a warrant is unconstitutional, regardless of whether they are communicating with their next-door neighbor or a suspected terrorist overseas.

Because the privacy board agreed with the reasoning that there could be a so-called "foreign intelligence" exception to the Fourth Amendment, Goitein said, "the Board’s recommendations would leave in place the government’s ability to spy on its citizens – along with their friends, family members, and business partners overseas – without any suspicion of wrongdoing.”

Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the board's decision "a weak report that fails to fully grasp the civil liberties and human rights implications of permitting the government sweeping access to the communications of innocent people." 

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed extensive NSA spying programs -- which have affected people all over the world -- when he leaked troves of documents to journalists in june of 2013 before fleeing the United States and receiving asylum in Russia. His one-year asylum term is set to expire on July, and it is not yet clear what he will do next.