A White House advisory committee examining federal spy programs says in a draft report the government should continue collecting bulk records on every U.S. phone call with new restrictions to protect privacy, said an administration official familiar with the report.
A draft version of the report outlines changes President Barack Obama should make affecting National Security Agency surveillance, including replacing the agency’s military chief with a civilian, the administration official and another U.S. official said.
It also recommends White House review of eavesdropping on foreign leaders and creating a legal advocate to argue privacy rights before a secret court that approves spy programs, they said. Both officials requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the findings, which haven’t been made public by the White House.
Obama appointed the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology in August in response to an international and domestic backlash against U.S. spy programs exposed in documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The documents revealed the extent of communications and data swept up by the NSA’s programs globally. Snowden is in Russia under temporary asylum.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, declined to comment on the contents of the report. One option the White House reviewed, to split the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, won’t happen, Hayden said.
“Following a thorough interagency review, the administration has decided that keeping the positions of NSA Director and Cyber Command Commander together as one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies’ missions,” Hayden said.
Snowden’s leaked documents revealed that the NSA collects bulk phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, on billions of people worldwide. The task force proposed that the records be held instead by phone companies or a third-party organization, the administration official said.
The panel also suggested the imposition of stricter standards before allowing NSA permission to search the data, the source confirmed.
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported the panel’s findings earlier.
The administration official said the recommendations were in draft form and may change before they are formally submitted to the White House.
Altering the bulk phone records collection program may encounter opposition. NSA Director General Keith Alexander told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Dec. 11 that he knew of no alternatives and that making changes to bulk record collection might leave the U.S. vulnerable to another terrorist attack.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, introduced a bill that would preserve the ability of the NSA to collect such phone records. An NSA analysis presented to Feinstein found significant costs to phone companies to retain the data.
The review group is made up of White House insiders. Panel members are Richard Clarke, a former U.S. cybersecurity adviser; Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who once worked in the administration; and Peter Swire, who served on Obama’s National Economic Council.
The panel’s final report, due to the president by Dec. 15, follows interim findings delivered orally at the White House earlier this month and two private meetings held in September, according to participants.
The options for changes at the NSA, floated by stakeholders, lawmakers and the administration, covered a variety of issues from limiting the scope of the surveillance programs to expanding public disclosure and strengthening oversight.
“Our review is looking across the board at our intelligence gathering to ensure that as we gather intelligence, we are properly accounting for both the security of our citizens and our allies, and the privacy concerns shared by Americans and citizens around the world,” Hayden said in an e-mailed statement.
While the group concluded that NSA surveillance programs follow the law, it recommended dozens of changes to structure, transparency and internal security, according to the administration official.
The report advocates codifying and publicly announcing the U.S.’s steps to protect privacy of foreign citizens whose telephone records, Internet communications or movements are gleaned by NSA, the officials said.
The committee is also expected to recommend that senior White House officials, including Obama, directly review the list of foreign leaders whose communications are routinely monitored by the NSA. It is also expected to urge that a legal advocate be allowed to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on behalf of protecting privacy of U.S. citizens, the officials said.
The NSA has tapped fiber-optic cables abroad to siphon data from Google Inc. (GOOG:US) and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US), circumvented or cracked encryption, and covertly introduced weaknesses and back doors into coding, according to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper based on Snowden documents.
Companies including Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US), Google, and Yahoo are adopting harder-to-crack code to protect their networks and data, after years of largely rebuffing calls from the White House and privacy advocates to improve security.
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