Dec 18, 2013 5:02 PM
In an effort to revive public confidence in the nation’s embattled intelligence services, the White House on Wednesday released a report suggesting far-reaching changes to the National Security Agency’s controversial data collection programs.
The report, offered by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, was commissioned by President Obama following the firestorm of controversy that erupted when former government contractor Edward Snowden disclosed many of the NSA’s surveillance programs, including one that gathers the telephone records of nearly all Americans, in June.
Among the 46 changes the task force recommended is a provision that would strip the NSA of the phone-records database it currently maintains and hand over control of that database to a third party or to the telephone companies that provided it.
“The current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” the report says.
One of the other recommendations in the report would create a new oversight process to determine the wisdom and efficacy of any U.S. surveillance of foreign leaders and foreign publics, a change likely spurred by the outcry from U.S. allies about overseas surveillance.
“Those involved in the process should consider whether (1) surveillance is motivated by especially important national security concerns or by concerns that are less pressing and (2) surveillance would involve leaders of nations with whom we share fundamental values and interests or leaders of other nations,” the report states.
The report also recommends the director of the NSA be made a Senate-confirmed position, and it says the administration should give “serious consideration” to the idea of making the head of the NSA a civilian position. Currently, that hat is worn by the head of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command unit.
The report’s recommendations also include some big changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which oversees the government’s requests for surveillance authority. One recommendation would create a “Public Interest Advocate” to push back against the government’s case for expanded spying authority. Currently, the court only hears the government’s case, but some have said the injection of an adversarial presence could prevent overreach. The report also recommends the power to appoint FISA judges be divided among the members of the Supreme Court, rather than resting solely with the Chief Justice.
The report released Wednesday, while extensive, had been “scrubbed” to ensure that no classified material would be released, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. The five members of the panel unanimously offered the recommendations in the report.
Carney said Wednesday that the report was born out of a desire to “make sure we’re not gathering intelligence because we can, but because we must.”
Since the controversy over the NSA’s data-gathering began mounting in June, the administration has hewed to a two-fold message, promising to address concerns about whether U.S. spying practices had overstepped their constitutional boundaries while maintaining that many of the data-collection programs under scrutiny provide a real boon to the nation’s security.
In a press release accompanying the report on Wednesday, the White House again affirmed the president’s view that the U.S. should “use its intelligence collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security while supporting our foreign policy, respecting privacy and civil liberties, maintaining the public trust, and reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure."
Carney said the White House “felt compelled” to release the report on Wednesday given the “inaccurate reporting” among some media outlets previewing its release. The overall review convened by the president in the wake of the NSA programs’ disclosure will not be finished until January.
The report will be one potential source of ideas on how to reform the U.S. intelligence apparatus, but it will not be the only source – the president met Tuesday with CEOs of technology companies, and he is likely to factor their concerns, along with the concerns of other interested parties, into his final analysis.
Mr. Obama will be studying the report’s findings during his upcoming vacation in Hawaii, Carney said Wednesday, and he will consult with other pertinent parties as necessary. He could speak to the report’s findings on January 28 at his annual State of the Union address, Carney said, but that will not preclude him from addressing it publicly before then.
Following the conclusion of their report, the five members of the task force met with the president Wednesday morning. Carney said Mr. Obama is “grateful” to the panelists for their hard work.
The report’s release comes only two days after a federal judge, Richard Leon, dealt a heavy blow to the government’s legal defense of the NSA’s mass data-collection, describing the program in his opinion as “almost Orwellian” and arguing it violates the Constitution’s protection against undue search and seizure.
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