The White House on Thursday rejected the recommendation from an outside task force that the National Security Agency halt its bulk collection of Americans' phone data, saying the controversial surveillance tactics were constitutional.
“Specifically on the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program, we disagree with the board’s analysis on the legality of the program,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, calling the techniques “lawful.”
“As the president has said though, he believes we can and should make changes in the program that will give the American people greater confidence in it,” Hayden added.
The long-awaited report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will be made public later Thursday, but early reports said that while divided, a majority of panelists recommended that the Obama administration abandon the phone metadata program exposed in leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
President Obama last week unveiled his reforms for the NSA, saying the agency must receive secret-court approval before accessing the phone data and that the federal government eventually should get out of the business of storing the information. The president, however, stopped short of calls to end the programs.
The panel concluded that Obama needed to do more to protect Americans' privacy rights.
"When the government collects all of a person's telephone records, storing them for five years in a government database that is subjected to high-speed digital searching and analysis, the privacy implications go far beyond what can be revealed by the metadata of a single telephone call," said the panel's executive director David Medine, former federal judge Patricia Wald and civil liberties advocate James Dempsey.
However, former Bush administration officials on the panel did not support that reasoning.
"I am concerned about the detrimental effect this superfluous second-guessing can have on our national security agencies and their staff," said Rachel Brand, a Justice Department lawyer under George W. Bush.
The Associated Press first reported details of the panel's findings.
The Supreme Court could ultimately decide the legality of the NSA surveillance programs. Two federal judges recently issued conflicting decisions on the phone metadata program, with one calling it constitutional and another saying it violated Americans' privacy rights.