The National Security Agency's vast data collection program targeting foreign nationals is a largely legal, valuable tool in fighting terrorism, a watchdog panel said Tuesday.
The panel, which earlier this year issued a sharp rebuke of domestic surveillance efforts, said in a preliminary report that the foreign intelligence efforts are generally in line with the U.S. constitution, while raising some concerns about unintentional data gathering of Americans.
"The program has proven valuable in the government's efforts to combat terrorism as well as in other areas of foreign intelligence," said the report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.
The report released as a draft, subject to a vote on Wednesday of the panel, appears to vindicate at least some aspects of the vast NSA data sweep, while sidestepping questions on whether privacy protections of U.S. law should be extended to "non-U.S. persons."
The panel was largely supportive of the NSA's handling of the programs authorized by Section 702 or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — the opposite of its conclusion in January of the huge telephone metadata collection effort by the intelligence agency.
"Presently, over a quarter of the NSA's reports concerning international terrorism include information based in whole or in part on Section 702 collection, and this percentage has increased every year since the statute was enacted," the report said.
This effort "has enabled the government to learn how they operate, and to understand their priorities, strategies, and tactics. In addition, the 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," it added.
The panel noted however that some aspects of the Section 702 program are "close to the line of constitutional reasonableness," notably the incidental collection of communications of Americans and a broad interpretation of Internet data that may be searched.
The panel began its review last year of the programs revealed in materials leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which led to a firestorm of criticism both at home and abroad.
The panel examined the program dubbed PRISM which collects data from major Internet companies as well as a separate "upstream: collection via Internet backbone firms.
The review said that unlike the phone monitoring, this type of surveillance without a warrant has generally been accepted under a foreign intelligence exception. And it noted that the programs did have some court supervision, through the secret FISA court.
It said surveillance of foreign targets "raises important but difficult legal and policy questions" but did not make specific recommendations on this.
Instead, the panel said it would participate in a review ordered by President Barack Obama on whether foreign nationals should be accorded similar privacy protections.
"Privacy is a human right that has been recognized most prominently in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," it said.
But the board said "it can make its most productive contribution in assessing these issues" in the context of the presidential review process.
A separate White House-appointed panel in December called for major reforms of U.S. eavesdropping programs, and Obama has pledged to make changes, U.S. lawmakers are also debating efforts to curb the NSA's capabilities.
The latest Snowden revelations, reported by The Washington Post this week, indicated the United States used broad authority to intercept information from most countries, but had "no-spying arrangements" with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.