A White House-appointed panel on Wednesday proposed curbs on some key National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance operations, recommending limits on a program to collect records of billions of telephone calls and new tests before Washington spies on foreign leaders.
Among the panel’s proposals, made in the wake of revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the most contentious may be its recommendation that the eavesdropping agency halt bulk collection of the telephone call records, known as “metadata.”
Instead, it said, those records should be held by telecommunications providers or a private third party. In a further limitation, the US government would need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for each search of the data.
“We don’t see the need for the government to be retaining that data,” said Richard Clarke, a member of the panel and a former White House counterterrorism adviser.
The panel’s report expressed deep skepticism about both the value and effectiveness of the metadata collection program.
“The question is not whether granting the government [this] authority makes us incrementally safer, but whether the additional safety is worth the sacrifice in terms of individual privacy, personal liberty and public trust,” it said.
The report’s authors say that the metadata collection program “has made only a modest contribution to the nation’s security.”
The program “has generated relevant information in only a small number of cases” that might have led to the prevention of a terrorist attack, they said in a footnote.
It added that “there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the... telephony meta-data program. Moreover, now that the existence of the program has been disclosed publicly, we suspect that it is likely to be less useful still.”
It remains to be seen how many of the panel’s 46 recommendations will be accepted by US President Barack Obama and the US Congress. The panel’s five members met with Obama at the White House on Wednesday.
Obama said in a TV interview earlier this month that he would be “proposing some self-restraint on the NSA” in reforms that the White House has said will be announced next month.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said some of the outside panel’s recommendations could be accepted, others studied further and some rejected.
Obama has already rejected, at least for now, one of the panel’s proposals: That NSA and US Cyber Command, which conducts cyberwarfare, have separate leaders, with the NSA led by a civilian rather than a military officer.
NSA officials have staunchly defended the bulk metadata program, saying it is essential to “connect the dots” between terrorist plotters overseas and co-conspirators inside the US.
“There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots,” US Army General Keith Alexander, the NSA’s director, told a US Senate committee last week. “Given that the threat is growing, I believe that is an unacceptable risk to our country.”
Alexander, nonetheless, has on occasion indicated a willingness to consider modifications to the metadata collection program.
Leaders of both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which would consider possible changes to surveillance laws, have indicated support for the continuation of metadata collection.