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.

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."

Some highlights from the recommendations:

(Note: the recommendations both involve decreasing transparency and decreasing leaks.)

  • "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 those "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."

"Amazingly, we were unanimous and enthusiastic on every one of the 46 recommendations," Geoffrey Stone, 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.