By Julian Hattem - 12/20/13 06:00 AM EST
President Obama’s holiday beach reading is particularly heavy this year.
Obama has promised he’ll review a more than 300-page list of 46 recommendations to reform the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance programs.
End the government’s bulk data collection:
The White House advisory panel says Congress should pass a law ending the NSA’s storage of bulk collection of data about Americans’ phone calls, known as metadata.
This program is at the center of the NSA activities revealed last summer by Edward Snowden, the government contractor given temporary political asylum in Russia.
The White House has argued the collection and storage of metadata has helped to stop specific terrorist plots, but the panel determined holding on to the data “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” using other methods.
Instead, telephone companies should store that data, and federal officials should be allowed to search it “when necessary for national security purposes.” Those searches would require an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The panel argues this would provide a balance between security and privacy.
“This approach would allow the government access to the relevant information when such access is justified, and thus protect national security without unnecessarily threatening privacy and liberty,” it said.
That’s somewhat similar to the USA Freedom Act, from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would end the metadata collection program. The bill has attracted support from a broad range of lawmakers, including more than 100 co-sponsors in the House.
President Obama has defended the collection program and said the current structure allows officials to preserve Americans’ anonymity.
“They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content,” he said at a press conference earlier this year. “But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
Metadata include numbers dialed, time and duration of calls, but not the content of the calls themselves.
Give public advocates a voice on surveillance court
The secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created to keep spying within the law, but only hears arguments from the government.
That’s a break from the traditional “adversary system,” where a court hears from two sides and then decides between them, and the FISA court almost never turns down a government request.
The panel said a public interest advocate should be allowed to “represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties” before the 11-member court.
“Hearing only the government’s side of the question leaves the judge without a researched and informed presentation of an opposing view,” it wrote.
Obama has said that he supports the advocate position among other reforms to the court, and the USA Freedom Act would also create the post.
Prevent agencies from forcing disclosure of information:
Lawmakers should reform laws to keep agencies from issuing letters that force people and companies to hand over sensitive information, the board said.
Officials at the FBI or other intelligence agencies issue the letters, but it is illegal for companies to disclose the fact they have received them.
The board said the letters should only be sent under an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, except in “genuine emergency” cases.
Additionally, both the government and companies receiving the letters should disclose, “on a periodic basis,” information about the type of information released, unless officials prove that national security is at stake.
Obama pledged to end the letters during the 2008 campaign, but his administration has continued to uphold it. Tech companies that reveal the government requests would be aiding terrorists, the administration said in a motion filed earlier this year.
Put a civilian in charge of the NSA:
The report recommends that a civilian, and not a military official, be in charge of the NSA, an idea already shot down by the White House.
It also said the new civilian head of the NSA should lose authority over the U.S. Cyber Command.
Obama seems to have already decided against this move, as the White House last week said it wanted to combine the two positions as one, and to keep them under military control.
Clamp down on leaks:
The report warned about “insider threats” who may gain access to classified information to either leak it to the public or steal it for other purposes.
The measures seem targeted at preventing leaks of critical information like the kind revealed by Snowden, though he is not named specifically.
Staffers with access to classified data should be vetted on an ongoing basis, rather that periodically, the report said.
Additionally, private companies should not be used to run background checks and information should be restricted to officials “whose jobs actually require access to the information.”
Brendan Sasso and Kate Tummarello contributed.