Obama Panel: NSA Phone Record Surveillance Should Be Limited

Dec 19, 2013
Originally published on December 19, 2013 12:08 pm
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After recently revelations about the National Security Agency, the Obama administration came up with a soundbite: Just because we can gather information, the White House said, doesn't always mean we should. That did not answer whether the U.S. would continue gathering telephone data on Americans or spying on foreign leaders. Now a presidential panel says, in most cases, the NSA shouldn't. The panel called for greater surveillance of those doing surveillance, and said the NSA can be just as effective while respecting civil liberties.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The review group did not mince words when it comes to the program that lets the National Security Agency collect nearly all U.S. phone records.

RICHARD CLARKE: We recommend it be terminated.

ABRAMSON: Panel member Richard Clarke has served has served in Republican and Democratic administrations.

CLARKE: We think there's no reason for the government to retain massive data files of telephone records. And we don't like the idea that the government can access those files without a court review.

ABRAMSON: Instead, the report says if the phone companies already store these records, the government should be allowed to search them, but only with a court order. The National Security Agency has said it is open to letting the companies keep the data. But it also says current technology would not permit rapid NSA access to that information. But the group says it doesn't buy that.

The review panel also took a dim view of another program revealed by leaked documents, the fact that the NSA has monitored the phone calls of foreign leaders, including allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Clarke says the group's conclusion was that, in general, the U.S. should not bug the phones of friends.

CLARKE: We think it should be done rarely. It should be approved at a very high level, after everyone who has an interest inside the government has had a chance to weigh in, and that there should be criteria for when you do this and when you don't.

ABRAMSON: But the report stressed that sometimes the NSA might have a legitimate need to eavesdrop on allies. The panel was also careful to say it was not questioning the NSA's basic mission. Panel member Peter Swire, a well-known privacy advocate, says there's no reason why respect for privacy should interfere with that mission.

PETER SWIRE: We have a consensus that the NSA can and should continue to do very successful foreign intelligence to protect America.

ABRAMSON: But if the panel has its way, the NSA and other agencies would have to radically change how they operate. The panel took a swipe at National Security Letters, which the FBI uses to demand personal information about Americans without court oversight.

Greg Nojeim is with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

GREG NOJEIM: The review group says National Security Letters should only be issued when a court has approved the issuance of a letter. And that, in fact, ends the letter program and replaces it with court orders.

ABRAMSON: For privacy advocates like Nojeim, the report is a big win on many counts. The panel says the NSA should not undermine encryption standards, as Snowden leaks indicate it may have done. That revelation has caused outrage among security companies, who say the NSA has hurt U.S. businesses, because they face suspicion abroad that their products are not reliable.

The panel also took aim at the NSA's own security standards, saying the agency should be using technologies that would have immediately tripped alarms when Snowden started copying sensitive information.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says the president continues to believe that the NSA programs in question are key to national security.

JAY CARNEY: But he does believe that we can take steps to refine our practices and make sure that we are gathering intelligence in a way that serves our security needs in a focused way, and not just because we can, because we have the capacity to do so.

ABRAMSON: Before the report came out, the White House had already rejected one key panel recommendation about having a civilian head the NSA. The future of all 46 recommendations will depend heavily on Congress, which would have to pass legislation to enact many of the proposals.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.