The Trump Administration Is Hiding a Crucial Report on NSA Spying Practices

Despite requests from a senator and the European Union, the Trump administration is refusing to make public an important report by a federal privacy watchdog about how the U.S. government handles personal information swept up by its surveillance.

The public has a right to know what the government does with the vast troves of private data that American intelligence agencies collect in the course of their spying. On Thursday, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding the release of the report, significant portions of which are unclassified.

The report is from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was created by Congress to be an independent, bipartisan agency. Its mission is to help ensure that national security laws and programs don’t infringe on individual rights. As part of that mission, the board has issued several significant oversight reports addressing government surveillance. While we have not always agreed with the conclusions of these reports, they have played a vital role in the democratic process by educating the public about the powerful spying tools at the government’s disposal. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s illegal mass surveillance programs, the board’s work informed the public debate by prompting the declassification of additional details about these secret programs.  

Recognizing the board’s importance as a mechanism for transparency, Congress required that it make its reports public to the greatest extent possible. But now the Trump administration is wrongly trying to keep its findings secret.

The report we’re seeking concerns the implementation of President Obama’s 2014 policy directive on government spying and the handling of personal information, which can include emails, chats, text messages, and more. The directive recognized that “all persons have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information.” While Obama’s policy changes left much to be desired, they did include improvements, including some very modest protections for the handling of personal information of non-American citizens abroad. The directive also encouraged the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to provide the president with a report assessing how the new policies were carried out.

In December 2016, the board delivered its report to the White House and congressional intelligence committees. Two months later, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote a letter to Office of the Director of National Intelligence, urging it to make public the unclassified portions of the report and to declassify the rest of it as soon as possible. European Union officials and representatives have also called for the report’s release.

In response, the Trump administration has refused to release any of the report, even with redactions, citing executive privilege. By shrouding the report in secrecy, the administration is depriving the public of the ability to understand how the government is applying Obama’s efforts to impose even minimal privacy safeguards on highly controversial NSA spying.

The European Union has said that the disclosure of the report is important for its annual assessment of the central U.S.-EU data-sharing agreement, known as Privacy Shield. That agreement allows American tech firms operating in Europe to easily transfer data to the United States.

Just last week, the European Parliament called for the suspension of the Privacy Shield agreement because the United States is not complying with EU law. Suspending the agreement would be devastating for Silicon Valley. One of parliament’s many concerns was Trump’s claim of “presidential privilege” over the board’s report, which likely addresses the implementation of privacy protections for Europeans.

In addition to keeping the report secret, the Trump administration appears to be undermining the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s proper functioning. Since February 2017, four of the board’s five positions have been vacant, preventing it from doing much of its work to investigate government overreach. Three new members have been nominated but are still awaiting Senate confirmation after many months. Even if all three were confirmed, that would leave the board imbalanced, with three Republicans and only one Democrat. In this scenario, the board’s rules require that the next member not be a Republican, but Trump has made no nomination.

Given the vacancies — and the fact that the current nominee for chair of the board is on the record supporting unconstitutional surveillance programs — there are now serious questions regarding whether the board will act as an independent check on surveillance abuses by the executive branch in the future. 

Despite questions about the future of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, its reports have shed much-needed light on the government’s surveillance practices. By hiding the report that we’re demanding today, the Trump administration is not only undermining the board’s purpose — it’s also undermining democratic accountability.

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Anonymous

And what about the federal report on torture, the one Obama locked away for years?

Anonymous

The ACLU also fought for the release of the full torture report. The DC Circuit said that it didn't have to be produced under FOIA, and the ACLU asked the Supreme Court to review. It declined to hear the case.

Dr. Timothy Leary

"... hiding a crucial report ... nothing new there.

Anonymous

If this started with the Obama administration why didn't I see a post confronting them then? Why now when Trump is in administration? I want to believe what you fight for is justice but it is difficult when we are seeing an issue that was not resolved regardless of the party involved.

Sheila Dean

I think the ACLU is dealing with the same epic bureaucratic foot dragging that came from actors inherited from both Bush and Obama. Trump's people are Bush's people are Obama's bureau. FOIA activists are seeking direct declassification from the POTUS now. There is immediate history that caused Congress to call a vote subpoena the DOJ for Congressional records demands during the Strzok hearings. I would use everything in your Lawfare arsenal because you are up against hardened corrupt institutionalists who, regardless of the POTUS, won't comply with Congressional correction unless they start making criminal referrals. The DOJ has some soul searching to do. They can hang onto people who lost their way and sabotage the American justice system or they can start turning out bureaucratic criminals before a real collapse takes place.

Anonymous

Why can't we just focus on this president and not the past? I'm tired of hearing about Obama when he's not in charge anymore! Let it go already! Keep moving forward and forget the drama. The Bible says to support your president so do it! And if you don't like this country then leave! It's that simple.

Anonymous

Simple minds follow simple rules, love the USA just not the thugs who run it for greed

Anonymous

The point is that Trump is blocking the report that would indicate if the government is following the recommendations and mandates Obama instituted. Without mentioning Obama you’d have to specifically detail lengthy policy changes and directives that are more easily explained as they did in the article.

And wgaf what the bible says? We have a Constitution, that’s the law of the land, and if you love your country, work to fix it. Your comments seriously go from left fringe to right fringe at breakneck speed.

SgrA*

When Trump publicly asked for Russians to locate the 30,000 e-mails of Hillary's, the hacking activity increased and penetrated its targets at the DNC. Since Trump has been unwilling to admit illegal Russian government activities influenced the election that put him in office -- he then is ALSO publicly asking the Russians to influence the next 2018 election. Trump is seeking Russia's help again by giving them access through a completely private conversation, but since none of it is on the record it cannot be sanctioned as an agreement by the U.S. Senate.

So it's a reasonable assertion that the next election will see prevalent hacking attacks by Russia that will have the potential to create chaos. It's not inconceivable that Trump would attempt to cancel the election too, but not for seemingly mishandling support for the U.S. to confront Russia for the hacking. No, certainly not when they did what he asked them to do -- and today Trump is inferring they can continue to do so. It's not that we don't know that Russia is going to again, like always, try to influence the mid-term elections in favor of Conservatives, it's that Trump is sanctioning Russia's continuation of it in plain view. He is not upholding his vow to protect the Constitution and our Democratically elected representatives for our Republic.

Anonymous

Seriously? How on earth do you figure the Russians could so cleverly sway opinion? People liked Trump and voted for him, period. The voting machines were not hacked. You really need to see reality

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