WASHINGTON (AP) — Endorsement of the NSA's Internet surveillance programs by a bipartisan privacy board deeply disappointed civil liberties activists Wednesday while providing a measure of vindication for beleaguered U.S. intelligence officials.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, welcomed the conclusion by the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that the National Security Agency's Internet spying on foreign targets in the U.S. has been legal, effective and subject to rigorous oversight to protect the rights of Americans.
Activist groups panned the report as a dud.
It was a dizzying turnabout for a privacy board that in January drew criticism in the other direction for branding the NSA's collection of domestic calling records unconstitutional.
As they unanimously adopted their 190-page report on Wednesday, the five board members — all appointed by President Barack Obama —sought to explain their largely favorable conclusions about surveillance programs that have provoked worldwide outrage since former NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden revealed them last year.
At issue is a spying regime, first definitively disclosed in Snowden documents last year, under which the NSA is using court orders to obtain foreign customers' emails, chats, videos and texts from Google, Facebook and other U.S. tech companies under a program known as PRISM. The documents also showed that the agency is intercepting foreign data as it transits fiber optic lines in the U.S.
Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Google and LinkedIn declined to comment.
The reputations of American technology companies have suffered abroad over the perception that they cannot protect customer data from U.S. spy agencies. Last week, the German government said it would end a contract with Verizon over concerns about network security.
European and other foreign intelligence agencies routinely demand cooperation from their national companies, U.S. officials say, but those operations have not been leaked to the news media.
The targets of the surveillance the U.S. privacy board was looking at this time must be foreigners living abroad, but the NSA also collects some American communications —either by mistake, or because the Americans were talking to or about foreign targets. The programs come under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which legalized programs launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Last week, the Obama administration disclosed for the first time that it targeted nearly 90,000 people or groups under the programs last year. There are 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide.
In January, the privacy board criticized a different program authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, through which the NSA had been collecting billions of American telephone records and searching through them in terrorism investigations. Obama has since called for ending NSA's collection of those records.
For the Section 702 probe, board members noted that they spent hours in classified briefings with intelligence officials, learning the details of how the NSA programs operate. And they came away convinced that the public debate about the programs had been rife with misconceptions.
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