A White House panel investigating the federal government's surveillance programs recommended in a report released Wednesday that new restrictions be placed on the National Security Agency's ability to monitor Americans, though the group did not propose dismantling those controversial spy programs.
The report, prepared by a group of legal and intelligence experts, made 46 recommendations aimed at reforming an intelligence infrastructure that remains rooted in methods authorized in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Among the most prominent recommendations is for the government to end bulk collection of phone metadata. Leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden showed that the intelligence community was collecting and holding information on phone calls made by millions of Americans.
The authors of Wednesday’s report say that such information should remain privately held, and that the government should have to request access to it when necessary for national security purposes.
"The current storage by the government of bull metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberties," the authors write. "As a general rule … the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about U.S. persons."
The report also advised restrictions on the surveillance of non-Americans by extending to foreigners many of the same privacy protections now afforded only to U.S. citizens. It also would reduce the government’s power to compel third parties like phone service providers to turn over private information.
The panel, appointed by President Obama following public accusations of domestic surveillance abuses, also suggested reducing “unjustified, unnecessary or excessive surveillance” of foreign leaders by the U.S. intelligence community. The NSA should get the president's permission before monitoring any foreign leaders whose countries share “fundamental values and interests” with the United States, the report says.
In response to calls for more effective oversight, the panel proposed that the next director of the NSA be a civilian, rather than another military commander.
The White House review includes a recommendation to beef up the vetting of government personnel who hold security clearances and either reduce or eliminate the government's reliance on private companies to do those background checks.
The report’s recommendations are not binding. The president in January will outline his administration’s plans to address the report’s recommendations.
“The president will work with his national security team to study the review group’s report, and to determine which recommendations we should implement,” the White House said in a statement.
The authors of the report include former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, former CIA official Michael Morell, University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Stone, Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein and former White House economic policy adviser Peter Swire.
The release of the five-person panel’s recommendations comes just as a federal court condemned the NSA's bulk collection of American phone data as “almost Orwellian,” and lawmakers started calling for reforms to the country’s intelligence-collection methods.
As the debate over the validity and wisdom of NSA intelligence-gathering practices continues, so too does the legal process.
"I welcome a Supreme Court review since it has been more than 30 years since the court’s original decision of constitutionality, and I believe it is crucial to settling the issue once and for all. In the meantime, the call records program remains in effect," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said earlier this week.