NSA snooping illegal, violates privacy: US watchdog

Update: January, 24/2014 - 11:00

WASHINGTON – A watchdog panel concluded on Thursday that bulk data collection by the United States is illegal and should be stopped, prompting praise from intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

But the fugitive said in an Internet chat that he has no plans to return home because he would not get a fair trial.

The 30-year-old former government contractor is wanted by Washington on espionage charges for leaking classified documents from the National Security Agency and exposing the vast scope of US surveillance.

US Attorney General Eric Holder, meanwhile, said he was not prepared to talk about clemency.

American authorities "would engage in conversation" if Snowden accepted responsibility for leaking government secrets but granting clemency "would be going too far," Holder told MSNBC television.

A report released by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded the NSA's huge phone metadata programmeme is illegal in several ways, and provides little or no value to the fight against terrorism.

The 238-page report said the programme "has shown minimal value in safeguarding the nation from terrorism."

And the panel said the programme is not authorised by the Patriot Act, the law passed following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It said it violates constitutional guarantees of free speech and protection against unreasonable searches, and also fails to comply with a federal privacy law. Moreover, it said the programme threatens to have "debilitating consequences for journalism" because "sources in a position to offer crucial information about newsworthy topics may remain silent out of fear that their telephone records could be used to trace their contacts."

The report also said the NSA stretches the interpretation of what may be "relevant" to a terrorism investigation.

The board, which was set up to create safeguards for privacy and civil liberties for stepped-up anti-terrorism efforts, rejected the notion the NSA programme could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

"The programme supplied no advance notice of attempted attacks on the New York City subway, the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing, or the failed Times Square car bombing," the report said.

But the five-member panel, which began work in 2012, years after Congress called for its creation, was split in its conclusions. Two members said they disagreed with key conclusions on the NSA programme's legality and effectiveness.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration sees the programme as "lawful", but that President Barack Obama has already outlined reforms. Rights activists welcome report

Civil liberties groups, meanwhile, hailed the report.

Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union said the panel correctly concluded that the NSA's call-records dragnet "is illegal and ineffective and presents a serious threat to civil liberties."

Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International USA said the report "should be the final nail in the coffin for the bulk collection of US telephony metadata under Section 215 of the Patriot Act."

"Congress should move to end the programme," Johnson said.— AFP