WASHINGTON – A presidential advisory panel has recommended sweeping limits on the government’s surveillance programs, including requiring a court to sign off on individual searches of phone records and stripping the National Security Agency of its ability to store that data from Americans.
It was unclear how the changes, if enacted, would impact the scope of the vast government surveillance programs. While President Barack Obama ordered the review board to submit recommendations following government spying disclosures earlier this year, he is under no obligation to accept them.
The White House authorized the release of the review group’s report on Wednesday, weeks ahead of schedule. The president was also conducting an internal review of the surveillance programs and planned to announce his decisions in January.
The board’s proposals address the government’s ability to collect intelligence both in the United States and overseas. Its recommendations include tightening federal law enforcement’s use of so-called national security letters, which give the government sweeping authority to demand financial and phone records without prior court approval in cases involving national security. It also recommended that authorities be required to obtain a prior “judicial finding” showing “reasonable grounds” that the information sought is relevant to terrorism or other intelligence activities.
In addition, the panel proposed terminating the NSA’s ability to store telephone data and instead require it to be held by the phone companies or a third party. Access to the data would then be permitted only through an order from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“With regard to the bulk metadata of phone calls, we think there should be judicial review before that information is accessed and we don’t think the government should retain it,” said Richard Clarke, a member of the five-person task force.
If both recommendations are enacted, it’s likely they would slow down the intelligence collection process. The panel’s recommendations do allow for exceptions “in emergencies,” leaving open the possibility of intelligence agencies scanning the information quickly and asking for permission later if they suspect imminent attack.
Although the task force did not recommend ending any of the NSA’s daily sweeps of telephone and Internet data, as some critics urged, a senior lawyer for one influential privacy advocate group said the review group’s recommendations would amount to “sweeping” changes in government policy if Obama accepts them in bulk.
The recommendations “will fuel the NSA reform effort both within the administration and in Congress,” said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The panel also tackled the diplomatic furor over the NSA spying’s on leaders of allied nations, including Germany. The group recommended that the president personally approve such spying and that the decisions be based in part on whether the United States shares “fundamental values and interests” with the leaders of those nations.
“Just because we can doesn’t mean we should,” Clarke said.
The panel’s other recommendations include:
• Guidelines for establishing reciprocal nonspying agreements with the United States
• Creation of a civil liberties policy official in the White House and at the Office of Management and Budget.
• Changes to the vetting process for those trying to obtain security clearances, including requiring that the vetting process be ongoing for those accessing classified information.
Panel members said they did not think any of the recommendations would harm U.S. national security.
“We are not in any way recommending the disarming of the intelligence community,” said Michael Morell, a task force member and former deputy director of the CIA. “We’re not saying struggle against terrorism is over.”