U.S. intelligence community opposes limits to privacy watchdog: memo

October 3, 2016 6:37 PM EDT

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By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. intelligence community does not support pending congressional legislation that would curtail the authority of a privacy watchdog that advises the president on government surveillance programs, according to an unclassified memo seen by Reuters.

The position amounts to a rare show of support for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, or PCLOB, from the spy agencies it is designed to oversee.

It came in a letter to the leaders of congressional intelligence committees that outlined opposition to several sections of an annual intelligence funding bill awaiting action in Congress.

President Barack Obama's senior advisers would recommend a veto of the bill if Congress does not address the concerns raised, the letter said.

The intelligence community "strongly opposes" part of the proposed legislation seeking to limit the jurisdiction of PCLOB to the privacy rights of Americans, and not foreigners, the letter, signed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, reads.

PCLOB is "uniquely situated" to give advice to spy agencies on how to respect global privacy interests, and limiting its authority "is a significant step backward from the reforms that the president has directed."

Some members of Congress have increasingly attempted to restrict PCLOB, which released a report in January 2014 that concluded a National Security Agency program that collected U.S. phone metadata in bulk was illegal and ineffective.

That program, exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was later reformed by Congress.

The letter, dated Sept. 9, also objected to a provision that would require PCLOB to keep senior intelligence and congressional officials informed about its activities, an arrangement it said would present significant separation of powers concerns.

In a statement Monday, ODNI spokesman Richard Kolko said the positions in the letter "remain the intelligence community's views."

A PCLOB spokeswoman did not comment on the letter but referred to an earlier statement expressing concern with the restrictions proposed by Congress, while noting Americans were the primary focus of the board.

The House intelligence committee has received the administration's comments and was working with Senate colleagues to finalize a version of the bill that can be enacted into law, said a spokesman for committee chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has placed a "hold" on the intelligence authorization bill due in part to the PCLOB language, a maneuver that prevents quick passage of the legislation.

PCLOB, a bipartisan five-member panel created by Congress in 2004, has been without a chairman since July.

(Corrects date to July in last paragraph)

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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