December 19, 2013

Obama’s own panel rips NSA spying on phone calls of Americans

President Obama’s internal review panel has accused the government of abusing the Patriot Act and said many of the intelligence community’s key tools should be reined in, including the NSA’s phone-snooping program and the FBI’s use of national security letters to demand secret information from private businesses, according to the stunning report released Wednesday.

The panel told Mr. Obama to scrap the National Security Agency’s phone-records collection program, saying it’s an infringement of privacy, and said the government instead should ask phone companies to store the records. The NSA would be able to ask for the records only when it deems national security is at stake.

“As a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about U.S. persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes,” the panel said.

The recommendation is a major blow to Mr. Obama, who has fought to preserve the phone-snooping program in the face of stiff criticism from privacy advocates and from conservatives and liberals on Capitol Hill.

The report goes much further, saying the government needs to rein in the secret court that oversees intelligence operations and needs to restrict the FBI’s use of national security letters.

It also called for far more information to be provided to make Congress and the public aware of government activities.

The report was released two days after a federal judge in Washington concluded that the phone-records program likely violates the Fourth Amendment.

The NSA said the Patriot Act gives it permission to collect records of nearly every phone call made in the U.S., including the numbers involved and the time and duration of the calls. The NSA says it does not store the contents of the conversations.

The White House said Mr. Obama is reviewing the report and will make decisions by early next year about the NSA program, but the panel’s conclusions are setbacks to him and to members of Congress who argue that the snooping is constitutional and necessary for national security.

Opponents of the snooping said the panel’s conclusions show a growing consensus that the government has overreached.

“The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the SenateJudiciary Committee.

The report is the latest fallout after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA’s phone-snooping and other U.S. intelligence programs this year, igniting a fierce debate on the extent of government intrusion and the security trade-offs.

After the revelations, Mr. Obama said he wanted to have a more public conversation to put the programs on firm legal and political footing. He formed his five-member internal review panel as part of that.

Panelists submitted their report to the White House late last week, but it was made public Wednesday after officials said they felt the need to counteract what they said was inaccurate reporting on the recommendations.

Mr. Obama met with the review board Wednesday morning, ahead of the report’s release. Afterward, the White House said Mr. Obama was still reviewing the report and getting input.

“This is a fairly broad assessment that’s being done. And the president will take his time because it is absolutely necessary to do that in his review. And come January, he’ll have concluded that work and make a presentation on it,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

The panel’s 46 recommendations amount to a wholesale rejection of the direction the intelligence community has gone since the war on terrorism began.

In one recommendation, the panel said the NSA director should require confirmation by the Senate and that the position — which is a military post — be open to civilians. The panel said the next director probably should be a civilian.

Under the Patriot Act, the federal government and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are able to order businesses to turn over private information.

The panel said that power should be constrained to narrow circumstances in a specific, authorized investigation — not a broad fishing expedition.

Panelists also recommended changes that could cut down on leaks like Mr. Snowden’s — including a scoring system that would determine how much access personnel have to sensitive information.

Even as it was being criticized by Mr. Obama’s panel, the intelligence community was reveling in another distinction: For the fifth straight year, it was named one of the five best places to work in the federal government, based on employee satisfaction.


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