WASHINGTON - A White House advisory panel has recommended to President Obama that the National Security Agency no longer keep a massive phone database that includes nearly every phone call made and received in the USA, and that the president create a new process requiring high-level approval to spy on foreign leaders.
The proposals are among 46 recommendations set out by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies that were delivered to the president last week and abruptly released by the White House on Wednesday.
Obama will review the recommendations in the coming weeks and announce potential policy changes next month, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Obama met with the five-member review panel in the secure White House Situation Room on Wednesday to discuss the report.
"I do believe as a 33-year veteran intelligence officer that the recommendations will not undermine in any way the intelligence community's ability keep the country safe," Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director and one of the panel's members, told reporters following the group's meeting with Obama.
Among the other recommendations from the review panel:
- Amend Section 215 of he Patriot Act, which gives the government broad authority to compel a third party to produce private information relevant to a terrorism investigation. The panel says Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts should only order third parties to provide the information if the government proves that the information sought is relevant to an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Congress should create the position of public interest advocate to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties before the court.
- Enact legislation requiring the intelligence community to regularly report to Congress and the American people on business records and metadata collected.
- In deciding whether to conduct surveillance of foreign leaders, consider certain criteria, including determining whether there is a need to engage in such surveillance to address security threats to the U.S., and whether there is reason to believe that foreign leader may be being "duplicitous in dealing with senior U.S. officials." Allies, most notably Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that U.S. intelligence officials were listening in on their calls.
- Split leadership of the U.S. military's Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. Currently both are headed by Army Gen. Keith Alexander.
- Make the position of director of the NSA a Senate-confirmed position, and make civilians eligible to hold the position. The panel also suggests Obama should make the next NSA director a civilian.
- Bolster background checks of personnel with access to classified material. Among the fixes suggested is that vetting be conducted by the U.S. government or by a non-profit, private sector group. Vetting procedures should also be ongoing, rather than periodic.
The release of the report comes after a federal judge said this week that bulk collection of phone and Internet data is probably unconstitutional.
Obama met Tuesday with tech executives from 15 American companies who urged him to "move aggressively" to overhaul the way the U.S. government conducts surveillance.
Obama tasked the advisory panel with coming up with policy recommendations in the wake of domestic and international outrage over revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden,
"It's a substantive, lengthy report and it merits further assessment," Carney said.
Carney said administration officials decided on an early release of the report because of "inaccurate and incomplete reports in the press about the report's content."
"We felt it was important to allow people to see the full report to draw their own conclusions," Carney said.
The panel also included Richard Clarke, a former U.S. cybersecurity adviser; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor; and Peter Swire, who served earlier on Obama's National Economic Council.
The panel said the report was endorsed unanimously by the members, who remain unpaid government employees for the next 30 days and could potentially be called to testify before Congress.
Clarke said the hope was that enacting the recommendations would give the public "a sense of trust that goes beyond what it has today."
"We are not saying that the struggle against terrorism is over or that it has declined to such an extent that we can dismantle the mechanisms we have put in place to safeguard the country," Clarke said. "What we are saying is those mechanisms can be more transparent, that they can have more independent, outside judicial oversight and there can be more mechanisms for protecting civil liberties."
The recommendations were welcomed by privacy advocates with cautious optimism.
"NSA's surveillance programs are un-American, unconstitutional, and need to be reined in," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We urge President Obama to accept his own Review Panel's recommendations and end these programs."