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|Brendan Sasso||December 19th 2013|
President Obama will soon have to decide what changes he wants to make to the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance operations after a report from a panel he convened recommended a substantial overhaul on December 18.
The White House so far has not promised to implement any of the suggested changes, saying merely that they will incorporate the report into an overall review to be completed over the "next several weeks." But the administration hinted that the president is receptive to at least some of the proposals. "The president noted that the group’s report represented a consensus view, particularly significant given the broad scope of the members’ expertise in counterterrorism, intelligence, oversight, privacy and civil liberties," the White House said.
The panel's highly-anticipated report outlines 46 proposed changes to NSA surveillance in response to the uproar over the programs revealed by Edward Snowden. The advisory group did not advocate completely ending the most controversial program revealed by Snowden — the bulk collection of data on every U.S. phone call.
Instead, the group recommended that the NSA allow phone companies or other third parties to collect and maintain the databases of phone records. The NSA could then mine the private data but only with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The recommendation came just two days after a federal district court judge ruled that the NSA's phone data collection appeared to violate the constitutional rights of millions of Americans.
Leaders of the NSA and other administration officials have argued that the program is critical for "connecting the dots" and thwarting terrorist attacks. But after conducting its review, the panel concluded that the bulk phone data "was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using" more targeted surveillance.
The report also recommended that the president or other high-level official approve any spying on foreign leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was outraged to learn earlier this year that the NSA had been monitoring her phone calls.
The advisers called for the creation of a public advocate to push for privacy rights before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The secretive panel of federal judges currently only hears arguments from the government in favor of surveillance requests. The advisory group recommended that the government not undermine or weaken attempts to encrypt online communications. "Encryption is an essential basis for trust on the Internet; without such trust, valuable communications would not be possible," the advisors wrote. "For the entire system to work, encryption software itself must be trustworthy."
Obama met on December 18 with the members of the review group: Michael Morell, a former CIA official; Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism official; Cass Sunstein, a law professor and former regulatory official; Peter Swire, a former privacy official; and Geoffrey Stone, a constitutional law professor.
According to the White House, the president and the panel used the time to discuss their rationale for the dozens of recommendations in the report. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the president will likely say which of the proposals he will adopt sometime between returning back to Washington from Hawaii after New Year's Day and the State of the Union, slated for Jan. 28. Carney said Obama will likely take the report with him on his vacation "and study it and work on it."
"This is a serious document, for which the president is greatly appreciative," Carney said. "A lot of work went into it. It is long. …. And he wants to and his team wants to take time to assess it, to review it, and that is why in January, when the overall internal review is completed, the president will make remarks about the work that he has undertaken and the outcomes of his review."
The American Civil Liberties Union urged President Obama to adopt the group's recommendations. "NSA's surveillance programs are un-American, unconstitutional, and need to be reined in," Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, said in a statement.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is pushing legislation to curb the NSA's powers, called the report a "vindication" of his efforts. “The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far," Leahy said. "The bulk collection of Americans’ data by the U.S. government must end."
But the White House has already shot down some of the recommendations in the report. The advisers recommended that the president consider a civilian to lead the NSA and that the director should lose authority over U.S. Cyber Command, a unit of military hackers who defend U.S. networks and attack enemy systems.
The White House announced on December 13 that the next NSA director will head both agencies and be a military officer.
Brendan Sasso writes for TheHill.com, from where this article is adapted.