A Thumbs-Up for NSA Internet Spying on Foreigners


Endorsement of the NSA’s Internet surveillance programs by a bipartisan privacy board deeply disappointed civil liberties activists Wednesday while providing a measure of vindication for beleaguered U.S. intelligence officials.

James Clapper, director of national intelligence, welcomed the conclusion by the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that the National Security Agency’s Internet spying on foreign targets in the U.S. has been legal, effective and subject to rigorous oversight to protect the rights of Americans.

Activist groups panned the report as a dud.

It was a dizzying turnabout for a privacy board that in January drew criticism in the other direction for branding the NSA’s collection of domestic calling records unconstitutional.

As they unanimously adopted their 190-page report on Wednesday, the five board members — all appointed by President Barack Obama —sought to explain their largely favorable conclusions about surveillance programs that have provoked worldwide outrage since former NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden revealed them last year.

Board members noted that they spent hours in classified briefings with intelligence officials, learning the details of how the NSA programs operate. And they came away convinced that the public debate about the programs had been rife with misconceptions.

For example, said board chairman David Medine, a former government privacy lawyer, the internet surveillance “is not a bulk collection program” but instead targets specific foreigners living abroad for terrorism or intelligence purposes. And, he said, contrary to media reports, it is not true that the NSA will monitor a person if the evidence shows just a 51 percent probability that he or she is a foreigner living abroad. The agency is barred from targeting an American without a warrant.

“We had the benefit of going into the CIA and the NSA and the FBI and the Justice Department and meeting with the key people who run the program and seeing demonstrations of how it works,” Medine said.

“We concluded that the program is legal, valuable and subject to intense oversight,” said board member Elisebeth Collins Cook, a former Republican staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Some activists strongly disagreed.

“The board’s recommendations would leave in place the government’s ability to spy on its citizens — along with their friends, family members and business partners overseas — without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” complained Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.