Take it from a civil liberties watchdog: not everything is bulk surveillance

On the surface, the NSA requires deleting anything without intelligence value. In practice, irrelevant info rarely gets purged – if ever. Photograph: Felix Clay

President Obama appointed my oversight board to examine the classified details of a key intelligence program. You should believe what happened next

James X Dempsey

A week ago, the US government body on which I sit, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), issued its latest report. President Obama appointed us, subject to Senate confirmation, but we are a completely independent body. As someone who has spent the past 19 years advocating for civil liberties, I accepted a part-time seat on the board, hoping to meld my outsider perspective with the insights afforded by access to classified details about the intelligence community’s actions.

In an earlier report, we had looked at the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata on telephone calls to, from and within the US. That “bulk” program, a majority of the board including myself concluded, had not been not authorized by Congress, was not effective and should be ended. (The president agreed with that last point, but so far, the program continues, as Congress considers legislation to ban it and other bulk collection of data inside the US.)

On the surface, the NSA requires deleting anything without intelligence value. In practice, irrelevant info rarely gets purged — if ever. Photograph: Felix Clay
On the surface, the NSA requires deleting anything without intelligence value. In practice, irrelevant info rarely gets purged — if ever. Photograph: Felix Clay

This time we were looking at a very different program, one that compels online service providers and other telecommunications companies in the US to disclose the contents of communications to and from individuals of interest to our government. Over many months, we heard from diverse voices, inside and out of the government — senior intelligence officials and analysts, academics and privacy advocates, telecommunications company executives and technical experts.

In the end, the board found that the program, at its core, was authorized by Congress, under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa). And we found that the program is effective. Just days after our report, in a story castigating the surveillance as “voyeuristic”, the Washington Post similarly concluded that the program has generated valuable information on terrorist plots, cyberattacks and weapons of mass destruction.

Our report on the so-called “702 program” provides probably the most complete accounting of any national security surveillance program published by any country in the world. In my personal view, many details about the program could have been made public before Edward Snowden’s leaks without hindering the intelligence agencies in doing their job. Indeed, they should have been. There are huge benefits, in terms of democratic legitimacy, to the public knowing what its government is doing.

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