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Government Privacy Board Tells Obama: Shut Down NSA Mass Spying Now

The White House has been quiet on surveillance reform since the USA Freedom Act crumbled in the Senate last November.

An executive-branch privacy watchdog is renewing its call for President Obama to unilaterally end the National Security Agency's domestic phone records dragnet amid growing uncertainty over Congress's willingness to reform government surveillance.

The bipartisan Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board issued a progress report Thursday charting the administration's efforts to comply with recommendations it made exactly a year ago to overhaul the NSA's surveillance apparatus. That stern review last January also deemed the bulk collection of U.S. call data illegal and ineffective at countering terrorist plots— conclusions that prompted the board to urge its dissolution.

While acknowledging that the intelligence community has made some important steps toward increased transparency and ensuring American data is subject to more stringent privacy protections, the board said Obama has rejected its request to turn off the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata.

"Most recommendations directed at the administration are still in the process of being implemented or have only been accepted in principle, without substantial progress yet made toward their implementation," the board wrote. "The administration has not followed the board's recommendation by unilaterally ending the telephone records program, which it could do at any time."

Obama has shown no interest in turning off the program—one of the government's most controversial secret spy powers revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—without first obtaining congressional approval.

A legislative push to end it was blocked by Senate Republicans in November, as the USA Freedom Act fell two votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and others have vowed to reintroduce the bill this term, but the clock is ticking. On June 1, core provisions of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act are due to sunset, including Section 215, which grants the intelligence community its legal basis for bulk collection.

David Medine, the privacy board's chairman, said Congress made a "good-faith effort" to reform Section 215. But if lawmakers are unable to pass a bill, he added, that should not deter the administration from ending the program, especially given that the GOP-dominated Senate may try to push a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

"We've gone through a year, and the program is still running," Medine said. "Congress may renew the whole provision. What we're effectively saying is, that shouldn't decide how the administration should handle the 215 program."

The board's new assessment arrives ahead of a separate report expected in the coming weeks from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which the White House said will contain new information about post-Snowden changes made to its mass surveillance programs. In his State of the Union address, Obama referenced that report, which some sources expect could be released as soon as early next week.

"While some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not," Obama said during his speech. "As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse."

But the White House has been notably quiet on surveillance reform since the Freedom Act crumbled in the Senate last November, as Republicans mounted late-stage opposition amid fears that the bill could undermine national security. That silence has rankled some privacy advocates, who have expressed concern that the administration is pushing a cybersecurity proposal that could dump even larger hauls of personal data at the NSA. Many groups have said they will not support any information-sharing legislation until surveillance reform is enacted.

The privacy board on Thursday also said the intelligence community had made substantial progress on adhering to recommendations it issued in a separate report six months ago on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In stark contrast to its 215 report, the board concluded the surveillance of foreign Internet communications legal and effective—though further Snowden revelations after the report called into question some of its central findings and raised the possibility that the NSA was not being entirely forthcoming about the program.

The five-member board's recommendation last year to end bulk collection was not unanimous. Rachel Brand and Elizabeth Collins Cook, both of whom served in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, have said the program should continue, albeit with stronger privacy safeguards.