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NSA review group member wants to expand data collection program

Published time: December 23, 2013 21:04
Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

A review group hand-picked by United States President Barack Obama said last week that the National Security Agency needs to reform dozens of the ways it does business. One member of that panel, however, says the NSA doesn’t do enough.

Michael Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a member of the five-person NSA review group compiled by Pres. Obama, said in a recent interview that the secretive US spy agency should have its powers expanded to collect not just telephone metadata, but email information as well.

"I would argue actually that the email data is probably more valuable than the telephony data," Morell told National Journal. "You can bet that the last thing a smart terrorist is going to do right now is call someone in the United States."

Speaking only days after the panel sent the White House a list of 46 recommendations they’ve suggested to reign in the NSA, Morell told the magazine that one of the agency’s biggest tools — Section 215 of the Patriot Act — could likely “stop the next 9/11” if it is authorized to collect emails.

"I would argue that what effectiveness we have seen to date is totally irrelevant to how effective it might be in the future," he said. "This program, 215, has the ability to stop the next 9/11, and if you added emails in there it would make it even more effective. Had it been in place in 2000 and 2001, I think that probably 9/11 would not have happened."

In a separate interview over the weekend with CBS News reporter Bob Schieffer, Morell insisted “the NSA is not spying on Americans” and that the agency didn’t act out of turn as its critics have suggested.

The NSA “is not focused on any single American,” Morell said. “It is not reading the content of your phone calls or my phone calls or anybody else’s phone calls. It is focused on this metadata for one purpose only, and that is to make sure that foreign terrorists aren’t in contact with anybody in the United States.”

And according to Morell, it’s no coincidence that there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack waged at the US since the NSA was awarded new abilities authorize by Congress with the passage of the post-9/11 Patriot Act.

“And there are a lot of reasons for that, and there are a lot of organizations and a lot of people who are responsible for that. And the National Security Agency is one of those agencies,” Morell added. “And because of that those — those officers who work there are patriots and we are going to continue to need them to do the work they do, because the threat continues to exist. And, quite frankly, it’s possible the threat could grow again. So that’s one very important piece of context that — that Americans need to understand.”

The ex-acting director of the CIA also tackled the notion that “the National Security Agency was out there on its own doing all of these things” without sufficient oversight.

“Not the case,” insisted Morell. “It was doing exactly what its government asked it to do. It was operating under strict rules, provided by the executive branch and — and the judicial branch and it was overseen extensively by the intelligence committees on Congress. There was no abuse here. They were doing exactly what they were told to do. I think that's important context for people to know.”

And while Morell might insist there’s been no abuse at hand, his four colleagues in the president’s NSA review group suggested there was room for change.

"We recommend that, as a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store all mass, undigested, non-public personal information about individuals to enable future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes," reads the fourth of 46 suggestions made by the panel in the 300-plus-page report released last week.“Any program involving government collection or storage of such data must be narrowly tailored to serve an important government interest.”

"We recommend that legislation should be enacted that terminates the storage of bulk telephony meta-data by the government under section 215, and transitions as soon as reasonably possible to a system in which such meta-data is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party," the group added.

Speaking to Schiefferfor CBS’ Face the Nation, Morell agreed that the civil liberties of innocent Americans would likely benefit from a change recommended by his panel that would put information now compelled by the NSA at a non-government facility, or in the hands of the actual telecommunication company that records that information.

“My preference is to create some sort of private consortia that holds all of this data, and so once you have that court order you can go to that private company and get an answer very, very quickly,” Morell said on the program.

“We don’t think we have significantly undermined the government’s ability to protect the country," he said. “While at the same time we think we have enhanced privacy and civil liberties significantly.”

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Washington, DC also said last week that the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program was likely unconstitutional and allowed for two plaintiffs who have sued for an injunction to be barred from the agency’s surveillance operations.

Speaking to journalist George Stephanopoulos this weekend, the chairman of the US House Permanent Committee on Intelligence suggested that he believes the court’s ruling will likely be overturned.

“Yes, this one district judge that doesn't handle national security cases had a difference of opinion. That's our good system. But he set aside his own decision, as he said 'likely to be overturned' because of the sheer volume of federal judges who have already reviewed this... and reaffirmed that this program is legal. It does meet the constitutional test,” Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) told Stephanopoulos.