A highly critical report on the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records warned that harassment of tea party groups is a "compelling danger" if the government continues its collection of personal information on such a massive scale.
The report was published by the federal government's independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board
"Once collected by the U.S. government, information is always at risk of being appropriated for new purposes,” according to the board.
Already, it said, "numerous federal agencies have exerted pressure on the NSA to share its data and surveillance tools for investigations into drug trafficking, cyber-attacks, money laundering, counterfeiting, and even copyright infringement."
But the report said a "more compelling danger is that personal information collected by the government will be misused to harass, blackmail, or intimidate, or to single out for scrutiny individuals or groups adhering to minority religions or holding unpopular views."
And the privacy board immediately pointed to IRS harassment of tea party groups: "In recent months, allegations have emerged at the national and local level involving the targeting of particular groups based on their ideology or religion — whether it be the Internal Revenue Service's reported singling out of tea party-affiliated organizations or the New York Police Department’s alleged secret labeling of entire mosques as terrorist organizations."
According to the bipartisan board, established in 2007 by order of the 9/11 Commission, "the immense power afforded the government by routine collection of all telephone records enables significant abuse and intrusion into Americans' privacy."
The report, which called for an end to the NSA's bulk gathering of telephone metadata, also warned that the government's legal justifications could extend to the collection of all private information, not just people's communications, as the technology to do so becomes available.
"The implication of this reasoning,” the board cautioned, "is that if the government develops an effective means of searching through everything in order to find something, then everything becomes relevant to its investigations."
Such a rationale is "dangerously overbroad," the report argued. "While terrorists use telephone communications to facilitate their plans, they also write emails, open bank accounts, use debit and credit cards, send money orders, rent vehicles, book hotel rooms, sign leases, borrow library books, and visit websites, among other things.
"Having information about all such transactions . . . would aid the government’s counterterrorism efforts so long as the government developed a technological means of sorting through the mass of data to find clues about suspected operatives."
But that would be "a license for nearly unlimited governmental acquisition of other kinds of transactional information," the report said.
The report's most striking finding was that the NSA phone program apparently was never able to "alert the government that a known terrorism suspect has entered the United States from abroad," never "directly contributed to the discovery of a terrorist plot," and never "directly contributed to the disruption of a terrorist plot."
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