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Obama, civil liberties watchdog to meet on NSA surveillance programs

June 21, 2013 at 12:15 PM   |   Comments

FORT MEADE, Md., June 21 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with "fierce civil libertarians" over concerns about government Internet and cellphone monitoring, the White House said.

Members of the watchdog Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board were scheduled to meet with Obama Friday to discuss surveillance of Internet and cellphone activities by the National Security Agency, made public in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contract worker thought to be in hiding in China, The Hill reported.

A senior administration official said Obama "looks forward to hearing from PCLOB members about their areas of focus and discussing recent developments."

Obama has said the board provides a counterweight to the government's surveillance programs, serving as a check on secret data-mining programs authorized under the Patriot Act.

"I've set up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens including some fierce civil libertarians," Obama told PBS in an interview that aired Monday. "I'll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities."

The panel was first proposed in the 2004 report by the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, and established later that year. In 2007, the group was granted independent powers, but both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama resisted nominating members, The Hill said.

The fifth and final member, Chairman David Medine, was confirmed last month by a 53-45 Senate vote. The watchdog has met only twice before a briefing this week on the programs leaked by Snowden, The Hill said.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post and Britain's The Guardian published documents Friday indicating the NSA may retain Americans' emails and phone calls if they're "believed to contain significant foreign intelligence," as well as U.S. citizens and legal residents' domestic communications if NSA analysts believe the communications could suggest evidence of a crime.

Neither determination requires a surveillance warrant.

If the NSA cannot determine people's locations, analysts are free to assume the people are overseas, one document said.

Obama said after the initial disclosures of the electronic eavesdropping two weeks ago NSA domestic activities "do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents, absent further action by a federal court, that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation."

But, the Post and Guardian said, Obama apparently omitted what NSA officials have long called "incidental" collection of Americans' calls and emails, or the routine capture of domestic U.S. communications in the process of targeting foreign communications.

The new documents, published by the two newspapers, indicate the NSA collects, processes, retains and disseminates the contents of Americans' phone calls and emails under a wide range of circumstances.

They can be seen at tinyurl.com/First-Document and tinyurl.com/Second-Document.

The documents -- both dated July 29, 2009, with one classified "Top Secret," the other labeled "Secret" and both signed by Attorney General Eric Holder -- detail the circumstances in which data collected on "U.S. persons" under the foreign intelligence authority must be destroyed.

They outline policies approved by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that let the NSA -- while monitoring the phone or email of a foreign diplomat or a suspected terrorist -- keep an intercept if it contains information deemed to be a "threat of serious harm to life or property" or if it sheds light on technical issues like encryption or vulnerability to cyberattacks.

The policies also let the NSA keep "foreign intelligence information" contained within attorney-client communications, one documents says.

Attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest recognized privileges for confidential communications.

"A communication identified as a domestic communication will be destroyed upon recognition unless the director (or acting director) of NSA specifically determines, in writing, that the communication is reasonably believed to contain significant foreign intelligence information," the file identified by United Press International as the second document says.

"Such communication may be provided to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (including United States person identities) for possible dissemination by the FBI in accordance with its minimization procedures," the document says.

The documents show discretion as to who is actually targeted under the NSA's foreign surveillance powers lies directly with its own analysts, without recourse to courts or superiors.

Some targeting decisions are reviewed on a regular basis by internal audit teams, the documents indicate.

The White House, Justice Department, Defense Department and NSA had no immediate comment on the latest disclosures.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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