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White House releases recommendations for limiting NSA programs

Published time: December 18, 2013 21:03
Edited time: December 18, 2013 21:52
Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

A review board established by the White House to investigate the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance operations believes that the NSA should make drastic changes to its bulk phone data collection program.

More than 40 recommendations are included in the 308-page report released by the White House on Wednesday afternoon, four months after United States President Barack Obama ordered an independent committee to convene and consider the NSA’s activities in the wake of an international surveillance scandal started in June by the unauthorized disclosure of top-secret national security documents.

Pres. Obama announced the creation of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology on August 9, two months to the day after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed himself to be the source of a leaked document that proved the US government has been compelling telecommunication companies for the phone records of millions of Americans on a daily basis.

The Review Group suggests in their report that the NSA stop pressuring tech companies to put government-friendly “backdoors” into their programs and halt their habit of stockpiling so-called zero-day exploits — or otherwise-unknown software and hardware vulnerabilities than when relied upon may allow for unfettered access to a target’s system.

U.S. President Barack Obama.(Reuters / Joshua Roberts)

Among those recommendations, the panel wrote, is for the US government to "fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards," and "not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable generally available commercial software." Later in the report, the group also suggests that the government adopt measures to diminish surveillance missions targeting foreign leaders and non-Americans.

Perhaps the most serious of suggestions, however, are the ones in which the panel implores the government to make adjustments to the way it collects telephone data from US persons under an interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which currently permits all call records to be routinely relinquished to the NSA.

"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. “Any program involving government collection or storage of such data must be narrowly tailored to serve an important government interest.”

Reuters / Jason Reed

Elsewhere, the panel asks that that information fall into the hands of the applicable telecom or a third-party, and not the federal government.

"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 wrote, referencing the Patriot Act provision that currently is interpreted to allow for some aspects of the NSA's surveillance operations.

When asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in September if his agency's goal was to collect the phone records of all Americans with no upper echelon to limit the amount of intelligence collected, NSA Director Gen Keith Alexander said, “I believe that it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox.”

On Monday this week a federal judge called that program likely unconstitutional and agreed to grant an injunction barring the NSA from further collecting telephony metadata pertaining to the co-plaintiffs in that case — just one of several filed since early June in which the government’s surveillance operations are called into question.

When the formation of the group was announced in August, the White House Office of the Press Secretary said the committee would advise Pres. Obama “on how, in light of advancements in technology, the United States can employ its technical collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while respecting our commitment to privacy and civil liberties, recognizing our need to maintain the public trust, and reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure.”

US Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency.(AFP Photo / Jim Watson)

That isn’t to say that the president has to heed those suggestions, however, and earlier on Wednesday during a scheduled media briefing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama is “

not going to make snap judgments.”

“He's going to look at it and assess it,” Carney said, adding to reporters that the overall, internal review will be completed by January 31.

"Over the next several weeks, as we bring to a close the administration’s overall review of signals intelligence, 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 published in-tandem with the release of the report on Wednesday.

Gen. Alexander did not have any explicit influence over the review board — staffed largely by Democratic intelligence and tech experts handpicked by the Obama administration — but his immediate supervisor, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, was selected by the president in August to act as an intermediary between the committee and the commander-in-chief.

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