Task Force Blasts NSA’s Collection and Storage of Personal Data

A group of presidential advisers recommends more than 40 changes to the NSA’s data collection program.

General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of the US Cyber Command, speaks during a discussion at the Reagan Building October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Brian Resnick, Marina Koren and Dustin Volz
Dec. 18, 2013, 11:26 a.m.

Fol­low­ing a fed­er­al rul­ing Monday call­ing the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s mass sur­veil­lance pro­grams “al­most Or­wellian,” the White House has re­leased a re­port from a group of pres­id­en­tial ad­visers on re­form­ing the or­gan­iz­a­tion.

The re­port, com­piled by a sur­veil­lance re­view board cre­ated in Au­gust, re­com­mends 46 changes to the NSA’s coun­terter­ror­ism pro­gram, which col­lects and stores for up to five years of Amer­ic­ans’ phone re­cords. The agency has re­mained a fix­ture in the news since former con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden re­leased clas­si­fied doc­u­ments about its col­lec­tion tech­niques.

The NSA’s status quo, the au­thors write, “cre­ates po­ten­tial risks to pub­lic trust, per­son­al pri­vacy, and civil liberty.”

Here are some high­lights:

  • “We re­com­mend that Con­gress should end such stor­age and trans­ition to a sys­tem in which such meta-data is held privately for the gov­ern­ment to query when ne­ces­sary for na­tion­al se­cur­ity pur­poses.”
  • “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.”
  • “We re­com­mend that le­gis­la­tion should be en­acted that ter­min­ates the stor­age of bulk tele­phony meta-data by the gov­ern­ment.”
  • The NSA dir­ect­or should be a sen­ate-con­firmed po­s­i­tion
  • Re­strict­ing who can hold clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion to only “who genu­inely need to know.”
  • On spy­ing on for­eign lead­ers, one should ask “Is there a need to en­gage in such sur­veil­lance in or­der to asses sig­ni­fic­ant threat to our na­tion­al se­cur­ity?”
  • Des­ig­nate the NSA as a “for­eign in­tel­li­gence or­gan­iz­a­tion. Mis­sions oth­er than for­eign in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion should gen­er­ally be re­as­signed else­where.”
  • “There should be a strong pre­sump­tion of trans­par­ency to en­able the Amer­ic­an people and their elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives in­de­pend­ently to as­sess the mer­its of the pro­grams for them­selves.”

The re­com­mend­a­tions would both make leak­ing doc­u­ments more dif­fi­cult by nar­row­ing the pool of people with se­cur­ity clear­ances. At the same time, they would seek to make NSA pro­grams more trans­par­ent. Some of the re­com­mend­a­tions ap­pear to be al­most no-brain­ers, like one sug­gest­ing the gov­ern­ment “use the best avail­able cy­ber se­cur­ity hard­ware, soft­ware, and pro­ced­ur­al pro­tec­tions against both in­tern­al and ex­tern­al threats.”

“Amaz­ingly, we were un­an­im­ous and en­thu­si­ast­ic on every one of the 46 re­com­mend­a­tions,” Geof­frey Stone, former dean of Uni­versity of Chica­go Law School and one of the task force’s five au­thors, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “That we were able to talk these hard, com­plic­ated is­sues through in a way that we all hap­pily en­dorsed is sort of a mar­vel.”

Oth­er mem­bers of the pan­el in­clude former top na­tion­al se­cur­ity of­fi­cial Richard Clarke, Cass Sun­stein, who worked in the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Geor­gia In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy’s Peter Swire and Mi­chael Mo­rell, a former deputy dir­ect­or of the CIA. The task force has come un­der fire for its close ties to NSA dir­ect­or James Clap­per’s of­fice.

Wed­nes­day’s pub­lic re­lease is a long way from Pres­id­ent Obama’s im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the Snowden leaks. In June the pres­id­ent said, “I think we have struck a nice bal­ance,” in terms of the tradeoffs between NSA power and the over­sight of such power. Then, in Au­gust, he an­nounced that his ad­min­is­tra­tion would be look­ing in­to ways to in­crease trans­par­ency, be­cause “it’s not enough for me as pres­id­ent to have con­fid­ence in these pro­grams,” he said. “The Amer­ic­an people need to have con­fid­ence in them as well.”

Still, the NSA’s pub­lic im­age con­tin­ues to buckle un­der the weight of one rev­el­a­tion after an­oth­er, and the grow­ing out­cry from people who are fed up with them all.

Most re­cently, the White House saw pres­sure from the private sec­tor to cur­tail the NSA’s massive sur­veil­lance pro­gram. Lead­ers from a num­ber of big tech­no­logy com­pan­ies told Obama in a Tues­day meet­ing that they are los­ing cus­tom­ers, es­pe­cially over­seas, who are skep­tic­al of Amer­ic­an-branded products be­cause of this year’s leaks. Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg News, the leaks “may cost U.S. com­pan­ies as much as $35 bil­lion in lost rev­en­ue through 2016 be­cause of doubts about the se­cur­ity of their sys­tems.”

More than 50 civil-liber­ties and In­ter­net-free­dom groups sent a let­ter to Con­gress on Wed­nes­day in protest of an NSA re­form bill, which they say of­fers no “real re­form,” pro­posed by Sen., Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., one of the agency’s most vis­ible de­fend­ers.

The re­port was sup­posed to be re­leased in Janu­ary. But as White House spokes­per­son Jay Car­ney told re­port­ers today, “We felt it was im­port­ant to al­low people to see the full re­port to draw their own con­clu­sions. For that reas­on we will be do­ing that this af­ter­noon.”

After mul­tiple in­dustry com­plaints and one sig­ni­fic­ant court rul­ing, the pres­id­ent could use some good PR when it comes to NSA spy­ing pro­grams.

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