A U.S. National Security Agency surveillance review board report, released Wednesday, recommends major changes in the way the agency tracks terrorism suspects, with the board calling for the agency to give up control of a massive U.S. phone records database.
The review board, appointed by President Barack Obama, recommends that the NSA no longer hold a huge database of U.S. telephone records collected the agency. The phone records should be held by the telecom carriers or by a third party, the board recommended.
"In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty," said the report from the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. Members of the review board include Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser in the White House, and Peter Swire, a law professor and former privacy chief in the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The U.S. government must continue to collect signals intelligence to protect its citizens, the report said, but it also must respect the privacy rights of both U.S. residents and foreign people.
"Excessive surveillance and unjustified secrecy can threaten civil liberties, public trust, and the core processes of democratic self-government," the report said. "All parts of the government, including those that protect our national security, must be subject to the rule of law."
The report questioned the NSA's decision to keep its phone records metadata collection program secret.
"We recommend that the decision to keep secret from the American people programs of the magnitude of the ... bulk telephony meta-data program should be made only after careful deliberation at high levels of government and only with due consideration of and respect for the strong presumption of transparency that is central to democratic governance," the report said. "A program of this magnitude should be kept secret from the American people only if (a) the program serves a compelling governmental interest and (b) the efficacy of the program would be substantially impaired if our enemies were to know of its existence."
The 308-page report includes 46 recommendations and calls for restrictions on the ability of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to compel telecom carriers and other companies to disclose private information to the government. The report also calls for restrictions in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's national security letter program targeting private records.
The directorate of the NSA should be open to civilians, not just military officers, and the president should "should give serious consideration" to appointing a civilian as the next director, the report said. The president should also split the duties of the NSA director and the military's U.S Cyber Command, a post now jointly held by General Keith Alexander, who's planning to leave the position.
The report agrees with several critics of the NSA's surveillance programs who have called for a new public advocate looking out for privacy and civil liberties at the surveillance court.
The NSA task force also recommends that the NSA stop working to undermine global encryption standards, which has been alleged in news reports this year. "A free and open Internet is critical to both self-government and economic growth," the report said.
The White House released the task force recommendations in an effort to correct recent news reports about the content of the panel's report, White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing.
Obama still believes the NSA's surveillance programs protect U.S. security, Carney said. "His priority remains the safety and security of the American people," Carney said.
Still, Obama is open to looking at new ways to conduct surveillance programs, Carney said. The NSA surveillance programs have come under public scrutiny after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents earlier this year.
This week, Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, issued an opinion saying the NSA's phone records collection program likely violates the U.S. Constitution. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by four U.S. residents challenging the phone records program.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.