WASHINGTON - A presidential advisory panel has recommended sweeping changes to government surveillance programs, including limiting the bulk collection of Americans' phone records by stripping the National Security Agency of its ability to store that data in its own facilities. Court orders would be required before the information could be searched.
In a 300-page report released today, the five-member panel also proposed greater scrutiny of decisions to spy on friendly foreign leaders, a practice that has outraged U.S. allies around the world.
While the panel's 46 recommendations broadly call for more oversight of the government's vast spying network, few programs would be ended. There's also no guarantee that the most stringent recommendations will be adopted by President Barack Obama, who authorized the panel but is not obligated to implement its findings.
The task force said it sought to balance the nation's security with the public's privacy rights and insisted the country would not be put at risk if more oversight was put in place. In fact, the report concludes that telephone information collected in bulk by the NSA and used in terror investigations "was not essential to preventing attacks."
"We're not saying the struggle against terrorism is over or that we can dismantle the mechanisms that we have put in place to safeguard the country," said Richard Clarke, a task force member and former government counterterrorism official. "What we are saying is those mechanisms can be more transparent."
The review group was set up as part of the White House response to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the scope of the government surveillance programs. Snowden is now a fugitive from U.S. authorities and was granted temporary asylum by Russia. The White House is conducting its own intelligence review, and Obama is expected to announce his decisions in January.
The White House had planned to release the panel's report next month, but officials said they decided to make it public now to avoid inaccurate reporting about its content. It coincided with increased political pressure on Obama following a blistering ruling Monday from a federal judge who declared the NSA's vast phone data collection likely was unconstitutional.
The judge, Richard Leon, called the NSA's operation "Orwellian" in scale and said there was little evidence that its gargantuan inventory of phone records from American users had prevented a terrorist attack. However, he stopped his ruling from taking effect, pending a likely government appeal.
The panel's most sweeping proposal would terminate the NSA's ability to store the telephone data and instead require it to be held by the phone companies or a third party. Access to the data would then be permitted only through an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.