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Gov't privacy board: NSA foreign surveillance program is legal

The federal program that allows for warrantless searches of foreigners' communications is legal, a government board said in a new report. However, the board warned, certain aspects of the program "push the program close to the line of constitutional reasonableness."

The warrantless searches are authorized under Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act -- the extent of the program was revealed in documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden last year.

"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," the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board wrote. 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 PCLOB offers a series of recommendations to improve the program, but its report is far softer than the assessment the board offered of another NSA program -- the mass collection of phone metadata from within the U.S. In January, the PCLOB called on the Obama administration to abandon the mass collection program, declaring that it could not find a single instance in which the program made a concrete difference in a counterterrorism investigation.

By contrast, the PCLOB said the 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."

Still, the board raised concerns about certain aspects of the program, such as the use of "about" collection -- in which the NSA collects communications that mention a target's email address or phone number, even if the communication is not from the target.

The PCLOB recommended that the NSA revise its targeting procedures in certain ways, such as specifying criteria for determining the expected foreign intelligence value of a particular target. It also suggested limiting the way the FBI uses 702 data, as well as limiting NSA and CIA queries into collected Section 702 data.

The board also suggests stronger periodic Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reviews of the program, as well as more assessments to ensure the incidental collection of domestic communications is prevented to the greatest extent possible.

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