An independent U.S. privacy panel has concluded that the government's vast collection of records about phone calls made by Americans is illegal and should be ended, with the records purged.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said Thursday that the surveillance being conducted by the clandestine National Security Agency "lacks a viable legal foundation" and raises "serious threats to privacy and civil liberties."
The government has been collecting the phone records in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. in an effort to thwart a new attack. But the panel said it could not find a single instance in which the data made "a concrete difference" in the outcome in the country's fight against terrorism, or led to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot.
The privacy board's conclusions and recommendations are not binding. Its call for an end to the collection of the phone records differs sharply with the stance taken last week by U.S. President Barack Obama in a speech on the country's massive intelligence-gathering operations.
Mr. Obama proposed ending the NSA's phone data collection as it now exists, but said the information should be held by a new entity to be created by the end of March after consultations with Congress. He said the U.S. would no longer tap calls made by leaders of foreign allies.
U.S. lawmakers are divided on whether to continue to collect the phone records. Some say it is necessary, while others contend that it violates the country's constitution by breaching the privacy of all Americans.
The scope of the U.S. surveillance has become public over the last several months in a series of leaks by former national security contractor Edward Snowden. The U.S. says he took 1.7 million documents from the NSA facility on the Pacific island state of Hawaii before fleeing to asylum in Russia.