An independent federal watchdog agency has released its findings on the National Security Agency's bulk metadata collection program, calling it illegal and declaring that it should be closed down.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency created in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and made in its current independent form by Congress in 2007, wrote its findings on the NSA metadata collection program in a 238-page report released on Thursday called "Report on the Telephone Records Program Conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and on the Operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."

In the lengthy analysis of the NSA's activities from the viewpoints of policy, constitutional analysis and judicial precedent, the five-member privacy watchdog agency called the NSA program ineffectual, unnecessary, intrusive, and without legal basis.

"We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation," stated the board's review, having only found one example in the past seven years where the NSA's program helped the U.S. government identify a terrorist. And according to CNN, the review panel found that law enforcement would have discovered that suspect in any case, without the NSA metadata collection program.

The panel's report -- looking at the legal case that the government has made, basing the NSA program on Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act -- also found that the law insufficiently gave the NSA grounds for the bulk collection of U.S. citizens' phone records. "The Board concludes that Section 215 does not provide an adequate legal basis to support the program," wrote the panel, also calling for a change to the Patriot Act in order to prevent executive abuse of the constitutional right to privacy. "The report appropriately calls into question the legality and constitutionality of the program and underscores the need to change the law to rein in the government's overbroad interpretation of Section 215."

Even more critical, the report argues that Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect records related to specific investigations, but does not authorize the bulk collection of data if it "cannot be regarded as 'relevant' to any FBI investigation." Of the NSA's activities based on the Patriot Act, the panel said that the law "does not authorize the NSA to collect anything."

The panel summarized its findings, saying the NSA's collection program "lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value," and concluding that, "as a result the board recommends the government end the program."  

While the panel does not have any legal authority, thus its findings won't force any further changes to the NSA metadata collection program, the report is likely to lend weight to calls for more reform to the NSA than what President Obama announced last week, as well as injecting another official voice into the debate that simply and bluntly calls for the program to be shuttered entirely. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D), who has long criticized the NSA's programs, took the panel's report as such, saying, "The report reaffirms the conclusion of many that the Section 215 bulk phone records program has not been critical to our national security, is not worth the intrusion on Americans' privacy, and should be shut down immediately."