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December 18, 2013

Panel Recommends Limits on NSA Spying

by Dan Robinson

A special panel appointed by President Barack Obama has released its report on U.S. surveillance activities.  Obama ordered the report and a wider government-wide review earlier this year amid leaks by exiled former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.  

Leaks by Edward Snowden about NSA eavesdropping programs created a huge problem for the U.S. intelligence community, and for Obama.

Obama has described the programs, approved and modified at various points by Congress and overseen by a special court, as important to keeping Americans safe, but has called for more "self-restraint" by the NSA.

​​Revelations added significant new layers to what is known about government information gathering, including data on telephone calls and activities on the Internet.

In its 300-page report, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies makes 46 recommendations.  

One is to end bulk storage of so-called "metadata" of the telephone records of Americans by the government, in favor of storage by private companies or a third party, rather than the NSA.  

It also says the government should not "as a general rule" and without "senior policy review, be permitted to collect and store all mass, undigested, non-public personal information about individuals to enable future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes."

Other recommendations include: requiring a court to approve individual searches of phone and Internet data, and limiting the NSA's emergency authority regarding tracking of known targets of counterterrorism surveillance who enter the United States.

The panel urges a new process to identify "uses and limits of surveillance on foreign leaders and in foreign nations."  It says decisions should consider negative effects, and whether other means or targets of collection could reliably reveal needed information.  

The review group met with Obama on Wednesday although its report was submitted last week.  

Press secretary Jay Carney said the decision to release the report was made because of "inaccurate and incomplete" media reports about its content.

He said Obama will be "very deliberate" in assessing the document during his upcoming holiday vacation and speak to the nation in January, when a separate overall internal U.S. government review is completed.

"The president has made clear that even as we review our efforts and make some changes in how we do things, we will not harm our ability to face those threats; that is his number one obligation as commander-in-chief," he said.

Carney said there is no doubt that the Snowden leaks created an intense focus on the surveillance issue, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The official U.S. position on Snowden remains unchanged, with the White House saying he should return to the U.S. to face felony charges.

The White House disagrees with suggestions that Snowden receive amnesty to prevent him from releasing additional information that could further damage U.S. security and relations with allies.

The Obama administration faced more pressure this week from a federal court ruling that found the bulk collection of data about telephone calls made by Americans is likely unconstitutional.

Obama also faced pressure from high-tech executives who met with him.  They are reported to have urged aggressive reforms, and voiced concern about damage to U.S. credibility and business interests abroad.

Interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes, NSA chief General Keith Alexander denied that the agency is collecting email or monitoring the phone conversations of Americans, saying the NSA's job is foreign intelligence.

He said the NSA can target communications of a U.S. person only with a probable cause finding under a court order. But he voiced concern about any decision to allow phone records to reside with private phone companies.