NSA review group recommends significant changes

2013_12_The_Pentagon_January_2008 The NSA review group established earlier this year by President Barack Obama has issued its 300-plus-page report with a total of 46 recommendations. (Photo: DOD)

A five-member White House panel Wednesday released its long-awaited review of the controversial domestic surveillance programs at the National Security Agency, recommending Congress end the agency’s ability to conduct bulk storage of data, including telephone metadata, about U.S. persons and urged new restrictions on secret court orders that require Internet companies to turn over data to the government.

The review panel, led by Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism and cybersecurity chief in the Clinton administration, and Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, said NSA’s authority to store bulk metadata it collects from private companies should be ended and the data should be kept by the companies or a private third party. The government would then be able to access the data with specific court orders.


“In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” states the report of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. “As a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.”

The panel also recommended the government rely on prior judicial review before being allowed to issue secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders and FBI-issued National Security Letters to compel private companies to hand over information about U.S. persons who may be communicating with non-citizens overseas.

The 304-page report includes a total of 46 recommendations. President Barack Obama established the panel in August, and plans to issue a formal set of policy changes based on the report and input from Congress in January.

In addition to Clarke and Morell, the panel is made up of Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor; and Peter Swire, a former member of Obama’s National Economic Council.

Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy group, praised the panel’s report, but said it falls short of the total reforms needed.


“The president’s panel agreed with the growing consensus that mass electronic surveillance has no place in American society,” Opsahl said. “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 praised the results of the panel’s study. “NSA’s surveillance programs are un-American, unconstitutional and need to be reined in,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of ACLU. “We urge President Obama to accept his own review panel’s recommendations and end these programs.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday the panel’s recommendations and the final policy changes under consideration by Obama are not aimed at dismantling or compromising the effectiveness of the intelligence community.

“It is necessary to review what we do and to make sure that we’re not just — because of the technology we have and the capacity we have — we’re not just collecting intelligence because we can, but that it’s focused,” Carney said.

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