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Presidential panel recommends limits on NSA spying

A task force appointed by President Obama recommends changes to National Security Agency operations, including FISA court reforms and restrictions on spying on foreign allies.

December 18, 2013|By Ken Dilanian and Christi Parsons
  • The five-member presidential task force included Michael Morell, center, shown in 2012, when he was acting CIA director.
The five-member presidential task force included Michael Morell, center,… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — A presidential task force has urged President Obama to impose significant curbs on National Security Agency operations, including an end to bulk collection of domestic telephone records, reform of a secret surveillance court and limits to spying on close foreign allies.

The independent five-member panel said its 46 recommendations were designed to add transparency and accountability at the NSA, which has vastly expanded its ability to secretly intercept Internet traffic and other communications since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Task force member Michael Morell, who retired in March as acting head of the CIA, said the recommendations would not diminish America's ability to collect the intelligence needed to safeguard national security against terrorists and other threats.

"We're not in any way recommending the disarming of the intelligence community," he said at a news briefing Wednesday. "We believe there needs to be some more oversight."

Another member, Richard Clarke, a counter-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush, said the NSA had overreached because it could.

"What we're saying is, just because we can doesn't mean we should," Clarke said.

The 303-page report marks the latest blow to the NSA, which has faced intense criticism since former contractor Edward Snowden began leaking classified documents about long-secret American surveillance operations and data collection at home and abroad.

But it also puts intense pressure on Obama, who now must decide whether to embrace or ignore recommendations from a team of senior advisors he personally selected in August as the uproar over the Snowden disclosures was building. Obama, who already has rejected proposals to appoint a civilian director of the NSA, could impose some of the changes, while others would require congressional action.

Early this week, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the NSA's bulk collection of hundreds of millions of domestic telephone calling records, which Snowden revealed and which has caused the greatest concern to civil liberties groups, is "almost Orwellian" and probably violates the Constitution.

White House officials declined to immediately assess the report, submitted to Obama on Friday. They said the president would consult with Congress on possible reforms and announce in January which recommendations he would approve and which he wouldn't.

"It's a substantive, lengthy report, and it merits serious review and assessment," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Obama won't make any "snap judgments," another aide said, but will review it after he leaves Friday for a family vacation in Hawaii.

NSA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Civil liberties groups and other critics quickly hailed the recommendations as overdue to end what they view as dragnet collection of personal data on virtually every American and improper use of technology companies to monitor private communications.

"The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government, from every corner of our nation: NSA, you've gone too far," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is backing a bill to end bulk collection of domestic phone records.

"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."

The advisors' most significant proposal would stop the NSA from collecting and archiving hundreds of millions of domestic telephone phone records that show the date, time and numbers called. The NSA and its supporters say the program is critical to determine whether terrorists or spies are communicating with people in the United States.

The report says the data should be stored by the telephone companies, or a private third-party entity, to safeguard the privacy of other Americans. U.S. intelligence officials have said such a system is technically possible, but would be expensive and time-consuming to create.

"Our fundamental recommendation is that the government should not hold this data," Morell said.

Another recommendation would limit NSA eavesdropping on leaders of closely allied nations. The disclosure that the NSA secretly monitored cellphones of leaders in Germany, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere has caused a furor in those countries and chilled diplomatic relations with Washington.

Before such leaders are monitored in the future, the report recommends, the White House should impose a screening process that weighs the potential economic and diplomatic costs if the operation becomes public.

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