— Next month President Barack Obama is expected to change the way the United States collects information - domestic and foreign. A presidential advisory panel has submitted 46 broad recommendations. The National Security Agency has been under fire for what many say is excessive gathering of non-public information on Americans culled from phone calls and the Internet.
The recommendations are to reign in U.S. collection of what's called metadata, the phone logs of all Americans, so their privacy can be protected. The 300-page report urges a limit
on the collection of these records because of a "a lurking danger of abuse." The National Security Agency's programs have grown since the terror attacks of September 2001, benefitting from advances in technology.
The panel suggests that private providers, not the NSA, store phone records.
Negroponte weighs in
John Negroponte, the country's first-ever director of national intelligence, said, "I think, whatever we do, the President needs to try and be sure we don’t undercut the effectiveness of this surveillance because we must not lose sight of the fact that it can be very useful and it has. These techniques have helped us avert terrorist attacks."
The presidential panel found that bulk phone records were helpful in stopping terror attacks, but the information could have been gained elsewhere. The report says the data was most helpful in disproving connections between known terrorist groups and alleged co-conspirators inside the U.S.
Obama said he will review the recommendations during his holiday vacation in Hawaii.
"Part of what’s been interesting is recognizing in a virtual world that just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should,” he said.
The president is under no obligation to accept the entire report. He can choose which recommendations to implement -- some will need to be approved by Congress.
Amie Stepanovich, with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, calls the report surprising and a huge step forward. "Now we have to keep our eyes open and see if they are actually going to be put into place."
The report suggests extending to foreigners the same federal privacy protections given to Americans.
It also says the president and senior advisors - not intelligence officials - should approve any spying on foreign leaders, and that the benefits should be weighed against possible consequences. This is to avoid embarrassments like earlier this year with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when it was revealed the U.S. had tapped her cellphone.
Negroponte said enough time has passed since 9/11 to look at narrowing surveillance. "This is the kind of consideration that has to be weighed - protection of privacy, diplomatic sensitivity versus effectiveness in combating terrorism. And there’s no question that there’s a sort of pendulum that's swinging here a bit toward the privacy and diplomatic side."
Just days before the release of the recommendations, a federal judge ruled that bulk collection of phone data is unconstitutional. Analysts think that new ruling, coupled with the surveillance report, will move the president and Congress to make substantial changes.