White House Likely to Turn Panel’s Slam of NSA Into a Wrist Slap

Opponents of digital wiretapping rally in Washington, D.C. Oct. 26, 2013.

A panel created by the Obama administration to evaluate the National Security Agency (NSA) following a series of warrantless wiretapping scandals is reportedly ready to recommend drastic reforms at the intelligence agency.

The panel will reportedly recommend the NSA be put under civilian leadership rather than military, meet stiffer requirements to justify collecting phone metadata records, and be forced to leave much of the data it would have collected in the hands of phone companies, ISPs or other data originators, sources told the Wall Street Journal Dec. 13 (registration required.)

The final report of the panel, called the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, isn’t due to the White House until Dec. 15, but a draft of its conclusions “strongly challenges the U.S. intelligence establishment,” according to the WSJ story.

The draft of the report concludes that NSA surveillance programs were created in accordance with still-controversially permissive federal rules about digital eavesdropping, and recommends changes to criteria used to approve the programs, their transparency to oversight committees, and the security surrounding them.

The draft recommends that nearly all the phone records the NSA has already collected be held by the companies from which they were taken rather than in government databases.

NSA officials have argued that restricting their ability to collect phone data in bulk or hold past records would hamper its ability to gather the information it needs, as well as its speed in finding insights.

Other recommendations include removing the country’s main cyberwar unit, called Cyber Command, from command of the director of the NSA and returning it to the military. However, the Obama administration has already shot down that suggestion, according to a Dec. 13 story in The Washington Post.

Current NSA chief Keith B. Alexander, defended the agency’s practices and the role of eavesdropping in national security, saying he knows of no other way to protect the U.S. from foreign threats than to monitor email activity from all over the world.

“There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots” between groups threatening the U.S. and specific information on where and how an attack plan is developing, Alexander told a Congressional hearing Dec. 11, according to an AP story. In fact, he added, the NSA’s phone-data collection process provides “a good model not just for our country, but for the rest of the world,” because it gives the intelligence agency the ability to act but requires oversight by the White House, Congress and courts.

The statement ignores criticism from judges and officials who disagree, including the conclusion by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge responsible for approving its activities that the agency’s violations of limits on those approvals was “longstanding and pervasive.”

Nevertheless, the White House, which can take or leave specific recommendations of the panel while making its own decision about any new restrictions on the NSA, is unlikely to accept any drastic changes or restrictions on the agency.

“The big picture is there’s not going to be that much [additional] constraint” by the White House, one anonymous U.S. official told The Washington Post. “They’re really not hurting [the NSA] that much.”

 

Image: Shutterstock.com/ Rena Schild

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