White House Panel Urges Limits On Some Aspects NSA Spying
December 19, 2013

White House Panel Urges Limits On Some Aspects of NSA Spying

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A White House advisory panel tasked with reviewing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs has called for sweeping changes in some of the agency’s controversial policies, such as the bulk collection of Americans’ phone and email records, but fell short of calling for these programs to end.

In a final report released on Wednesday, the five-member Presidential Review Group on Intelligence issued 46 recommendations it said would promote tighter constraints and greater transparency at the NSA.

Among the panel's proposals, which follow documents disclosed by former contractor Edward Snowden of widespread NSA spying on all US citizens, is a recommendation to limit the bulk collection of Americans' phone records by stripping the NSA of its ability to store that data in its own facilities. Instead, those records should be held by telecommunications providers or a private third party, with court orders required before the information can be searched by the government, the panel advised.

"We don't see the need for the government to be retaining that data," said panel member Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser.

The authors of the unclassified, 308-page report, entitled “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” expressed strong skepticism about both the value and effectiveness of the NSA’s metadata collection program.

"The question is not whether granting the government (that) authority makes us incrementally safer, but whether the additional safety is worth the sacrifice in terms of individual privacy, personal liberty and public trust," the panel wrote in its report.

The advisory board said the metadata collection program "has made only a modest contribution to the nation's security,” and has generated relevant information “in only a small number of cases" that might have led to the prevention of terrorist attack.

"There has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the... telephony meta-data program. Moreover, now that the existence of the program has been disclosed publicly, we suspect that it is likely to be less useful still,” read the report.

The President and Congress have not officially responded to the recommendations, but the panel's five members met with Mr. Obama in the secure White House Situation Room on Wednesday to discuss the report.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the President will review the recommendations in the coming weeks and announce potential policy changes next month.

Some of the panel's recommendations could be accepted, others studied further, and some rejected, he said.

"It's a substantive, lengthy report and it merits further assessment," Carney said, according to Aamer Madhani of USA TODAY.

Mr. Obama has already rejected one of the panel's recommendations – that NSA and US Cyber Command, which conducts cyberwarfare, have separate directors, with the NSA led by a civilian rather than a military officer.

In addition to Clarke, members of the advisory board include Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor and former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Obama; Peter Swire, who served earlier on Mr. Obama's National Economic Council; and former deputy CIA director Michael Morell.

Some of the panel’s other recommendations include:

• Amending Section 215 of the Patriot Act to authorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to compel third party disclosures of private information about particular individuals only if the government proves the data is relevant to an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, and the order is reasonable in focus, scope, and breadth.

• The creation of a position of public interest advocates to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties before the court.

• Enacting legislation requiring the intelligence agencies to regularly report to Congress on the business records and metadata it has collected.

• When deciding whether to conduct surveillance of foreign leaders, the government should conduct certain criteria, including the need to engage in such surveillance to address security threats and whether there is reason to believe that a foreign leader may be being "duplicitous in dealing with senior U.S. officials."

• Split leadership of the US military's Cyber Command and the NSA (both agencies are currently led by Army General Keith Alexander).

• Make the position of NSA director a Senate-confirmed position, with civilians eligible to hold the post.

• Strengthen background checks of personnel with access to classified material, with ongoing, rather than periodic, vetting
by the US government or a non-profit, private sector group.

Civil liberties groups generally praised the panel’s recommendations, but expressed some apprehension that the recommended reforms didn’t go far enough.

“The president's panel agreed with the growing consensus that mass electronic surveillance has no place in American society,” said Kurt Opsahl, Senior Staff Attorney for the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, in a statement.

“The review board floats a number of interesting reform proposals, and we're especially happy to see them condemn the NSA's attacks on encryption and other security systems people rely upon. But we’re disappointed that the recommendations suggest a path to continue untargeted spying. Mass surveillance is still heinous, even if private company servers are holding the data instead of government data centers.“

The American Civil Liberties Union also commended the panel, and urged the President to enact the proposed reforms.

"We welcome this report, which advocates for many of the ACLU's positions, including an end to the government's dragnet collection of telephone metadata and its undermining of encryption standards," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in a statement.

"NSA's surveillance programs are un-American, unconstitutional, and need to be reined in. We urge President Obama to accept his own Review Panel's recommendations and end these programs."

The panel’s report comes during a week of strong pushback from a number of corners to the federal government’s surveillance programs.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the government’s bulk collection of phone and Internet data is unconstitutional. However, the ruling is not final, and the judge removed any immediate legal force of his decision when he stayed an injunction pending appeal of the ruling.

On Tuesday, executives at 15 of the nation’s largest tech firms, including Cisco, Verizon, AT&T, IBM and others, held a lengthy meeting with President Obama at the White House, urging the president to “move aggressively” to reform the government’s spying policies, which they say are harming their reputations and their business.

The outrage over the NSA’s surveillance practices is not limited to domestic sources. Revelations in documents provided by Mr. Snowden that the US spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff have infuriated those countries' citizens as well.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Merkel compared the NSA’s spying practices with those of the Stasi, the secret police of the communist dictatorship in East Germany, where she was raised.

And in a surprise move on Wednesday, Brazil awarded a $4.5 billion contract to replace its fleet of aging fighter jets to Swedish firm Saab AB, after news of US spying on Brazilians helped derail US-based Boeing's chances for winning the deal, Alonso Soto and Brian Winter of Reuters reported.

"The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans," a Brazilian government source told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier this week, Mr. Snowden published an open letter to the citizens of Brazil seeking asylum in the country.

"Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak,” Mr. Snowden wrote in his letter, published Tuesday on the website of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

“There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement – where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion – and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever.”

NSA officials have staunchly defended the agency’s bulk metadata program, saying it is critical to "connect the dots" between foreign terrorist plotters and co-conspirators inside the US.

"There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots," said NSA Director Keith Alexander in a Senate committee hearing last week.

"Given that the threat is growing, I believe that is an unacceptable risk to our country."