White House Group Calls for Limits on NSA Surveillance

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Vincent Yu / AP

A TV screen shows a news report on Edward Snowden, who leaked secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on June 23, 2013

A panel appointed by President Barack Obama has recommended significant changes to controversial surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) that were disclosed by Edward Snowden.

The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies report calls on Obama to end the NSA’s collection of a massive database of telephone metadata and to enact new restrictions on the use of private data held by communications and technology companies. The more than 300-page report includes 46 specific recommendations to the President, and follows on months of slow leaks from a treasure trove of documents taken from the NSA by Snowden that have caused an uproar both in the U.S. and around the world.

“We recommend that, as a general rule, and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store all mass, undigested, nonpublic personal information about individuals to enable future queries and data mining for foreign-intelligence purposes,” the report states in one recommendation.

If implemented, the panel’s recommendations would drastically increase oversight of the NSA, requiring new levels of approval from outside the agency for more tailored surveillance programs. The group is also calling for the agency’s role to be clearly defined as that of a foreign-intelligence organization, and to split off offices that have nonspying missions. The group also called for the possibility of civilian leadership at the agency, which has long operated as a military organization. The group calls for the collection and storage of metadata on U.S. telephone calls to be done either by telephone companies or a third party, and that the information only be accessed by the government if the “particular information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation” and if “the order is reasonable in focus, scope and breadth” like a subpoena. Under the current program, the NSA stores that data on its own computers.

The authors also call for an expansion in independent oversight of the intelligence community, including the creation of a public-interest advocate “to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties” before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the expansion of the mandate of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Additionally, the panel’s report lays out a series of recommendations to protect classified information that are directly tailored in response to the Snowden leaks, including the creation of an “administrative access” clearance system to allow information-technology personnel — like Snowden in his former position — to do their jobs without having access to substantive intelligence information.

In an apparent response to a recently revealed NSA program code-named Bullrun, which seeks to undermine encryption standards and commercial software security, the report specifically recommends that the U.S. government “fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards ” and “not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable generally available commercial software.”

The White House is currently reviewing the recommendations, and Obama is expected to stake out a position on the report by mid-January. “While we had intended to release the review group’s full report in January, given inaccurate and incomplete reports in the press about the report’s content, we felt it was important to allow people to see the full report to draw their own conclusions,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Wednesday.

Obama has already decided against one of the panel’s recommendations: to split the leadership of the military’s Cyber Command and the NSA, the post currently held by General Keith Alexander, into two separate positions.

The review panel was made up of five people appointed by Obama: Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA; Richard Clarke, a former national counterterrorism coordinator; Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor and former adviser to President Obama; and Peter Swire, a law professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.