Just two days after a federal judge issued a scathing opinion in which he said the NSA phone metadata program is “likely unconstitutional,” the White House released the report from the five-member panel tasked with reviewing the agency’s data collection methods.
The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology recommending 46 changes, some of which are significant, to the how the NSA gathers intelligence. The suggestions in the 303-page report, Liberty and Security in a Changing World, are non-binding.
“We have emphasized the need to develop principles designed to create strong foundations for the future,” said the panel members a letter to President Barack Obama. “Although we have explored past and current practices, and while that exploration has informed our recommendations, this Report should not be taken as a general review of, or as an attempt to provide a detailed assessment of, those practices.”
“We recognize that our forty-six recommendations, developed over a relatively short period of time, will require careful assessment by a wide range of relevant officials, with close reference to the likely consequences. Our goal has been to establish broad understandings and principles that can provide helpful orientation during the coming months, years, and decades,” the members added.
Initial reports indicated that the panel would suggest that the agency dismantle its vast controversial and heavily criticized phone record database, which stores information on virtually every American. Indeed, the panel even says that “the current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.”
The report suggests that data still be retained by phone companies or a third-party for purposes of searches whenever authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). There are also legislative reforms recommended that would limit the extent of the program.
Even though the storage of the data remains in place, though via phone companies or third-parties, the panel’s conclusion on its impact on civil liberties and the public trust is still very damning to the White House and the NSA. In fact, the entire report is damaging to President Obama’s case that the domestic surveillance programs be kept in place.
But reforms to the phone metadata recommendation have already been met with opposition from intelligence officials. The White House hasn’t communicated support for the suggestion and, given President Obama’s general defense of the NSA, one could surmise that nothing will change.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised the report, noting that some of the suggestions are the same as those they and other privacy advocates have proposed.
“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 Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “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 suggested that the Director of the NSA be subject to Senate confirmation and that civilians be made eligible to serve in the role (the latter has been rejected by the White House). The members also recommend that the NSA “clearly designated as a foreign intelligence organization,” and that other missions “should generally be reassigned elsewhere.”
There is also a call for a “Public Interest Advocate” to the FISC to “to represent privacy and civil liberties interests,” which is a part of privacy advocates proposed legislative reforms.
The panel encourages more transparency, accountability, and oversight over the NSA and FISC. They also recommend that the a new Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board be created to replace the previous board. This body would be authorized to receive whistleblower complaints from those in the employ of the intelligence community.
Other noteworthy items from the report are recommendations that the NSA not ask private companies to build gateways into their networks so that it can access encrypted communications and that greater protections for foreign nationals caught in the agency’s dragnet spying. It also suggests that the NSA no longer work to encryption protocols to read communications.
The panel’s report wasn’t slated for released until January, but the White House expedited the process because of leaks on its contents to the media. It comes as congressional supporters of the NSA dig in their heels, despite no documented evidence of terror plots foiled by the domestic surveillance programs.