Oversight Board Calls for Greater Transparency of Telephone Surveillance


Today, the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board released its report examining the bulk collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the operation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The NSA program has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The oversight board’s report is sharply critical of the program and calls for greater transparency of surveillance policies and the surveillance court.

In June 2013, the oversight board – with a full slate of members finally appointed after lying neglected for years – began to review the issues implicated in the Snowden disclosures. Unlike the special review group appointed by President Obama to consider the same issues, the board is a permanent and independent entity, with statutory authorization from Congress and members confirmed by the Senate. President Obama reportedly consulted with the board while formulating his position on the NSA issue but did not wait for the board’s full report to be published before announcing his position on Jan. 17.

In its report, the board concludes that the NSA’s phone records program violates the law and poses a risk to Americans’ privacy and free speech rights. The report also recommends reforms to the surveillance court, which can grant warrants for electronic surveillance, in order to “bolster public confidence in the operation of the court.”

Several of the recommendations propose increased transparency, aimed at enabling informed public debate and government accountability. “The government must take the initiative and formulate long-term solutions that promote greater transparency for government surveillance policies,” the report states. The board also calls for increased disclosure of the surveillance court’s decisions – excluding sensitive operational details – and improved public reporting about the scope of surveillance activities.

The oversight board’s report warrants serious consideration from all three branches of government. As the Founding Fathers knew, unchecked invasions of individual privacy imperil freedom. Now, both the independent oversight board and the president’s own review group have found that the checks and balances for electronic surveillance could be better calibrated. Both of those reviews have pointed to increased transparency as a necessary component to strike a proper balance.

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