Federal Report: Warrantless NSA Searches Of Foreign Communications Are Legal

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(FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

(FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – A federal program which utilizes warrantless searches of foreigners’ communications is legal, according to a government oversight report, but cautions that the “intentional abuse” from the FISA searches could allow for non-targeted individuals’ private information to be mishandled by the government.

In the “Report on the Surveillance Program Operated Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board finds that the warrantless search of foreigners’ communication is legal, but adds that specific elements of the federal program quibble with “constitutional reasonableness.”

The vast range of the program was first revealed publicly by the leaked documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“Operation of the Section 702 program has been subject to judicial oversight and extensive internal supervision, and the Board has found no evidence of intentional abuse,” reads the government board report.

However, it continued, “The Board has found that certain aspects of the program’s implementation raise privacy concerns. These include the scope of the incidental collection of U.S. persons’ communications and the use of queries to search the information collected under the program for the communications of specific U.S. persons.”

The report says that Section 702 protections have been adequate in preventing “the exploitation of information” acquired for “illegitimate” reasons: “The Board has seen no trace of any such illegitimate activity associated with the program, or any attempt to intentionally circumvent legal limits.”

However, it concedes that the program rules “allow a great deal of private information about U.S. persons to be acquired by the government.”

The NSA’s “about” collection of emails, phone numbers and other contact information is noted as a primary concern, with such communications being collected even if it’s not from the targeted individuals.

The board also notes that there should be stronger FISA reviews, with an emphasis on the prevention of the incidental “about” collection of domestic communications.

The PCLOB suggests a series of recommendations to protect privacy, but said that the program has been effective in identifying possible terrorist plots and individuals that would not have been detected otherwise. The Section 702 program “has led the government to identify previously unknown individuals who are involved in international terrorism, and it has played a key role in discovering and disrupting specific terrorist plots aimed at the United States and other countries.”

In contrast, the PCLOB issued a report in January that the NSA program for the mass collection of phone metadata had not provided a single case of counterterrorism leads. The panel urged the Obama administration to abandon the mass collection program.

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