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Intelligence Panel Recommends Limits On NSA Surveillance

The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md.
Patrick Semansky
The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md.

(This post was updated at 6:30 p.m. ET)

A panel looking into U.S. electronic surveillance activities in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations has recommended removing the NSA's authority to collect and store Americans' telephone data.

The key recommendation was one of dozens that the panel put forward; however, it did not propose a wholesale scaling back of domestic spying by the National Security Agency and other intelligence branches.

Richard Clarke, a member of the advisory panel, said, "Although we found no evidence of abuse ... the potential for abuse in the future is there, and the technology is certainly there to create a surveillance state in the future."

"We want to put in place more oversight outside of those agencies," he said.

The Associated Press says: "It was not immediately clear whether the proposed changes would limit the scope of the collections." The recommendations, if adopted, would "end the government's systematic collection of logs of all Americans' phone calls, and [keep] those in private hands, 'for queries and data mining' only by court order," the New York Times reports.

The panel also recommended "new criteria that should be met before the United States engages in surveillance of foreign leaders," reports Reuters. "Before spying on such leaders, U.S. officials should determine if there are other ways to obtain the necessary information and weigh the negative effects if the surveillance becomes public, panel members wrote in one of 46 recommendations."

Taken together, The Times says, "the recommendations would remove from the N.S.A.'s hands the authority to conduct many of its operations without review by the president, Congress or the courts. But by themselves, they would terminate few programs."

President Obama ordered the review board after a series of exposes in British and U.S. newspapers detailing leaks by former NSA contractor Snowden, who fled the U.S. and is now living in temporary asylum in Russia. He is not obligated to accept their proposals.

The White House said Wednesday that the president had met with the panel:

"This meeting offered President Obama an opportunity to hear directly from the group's members and discuss the thinking behind the 46 recommendations in their report. The President noted that the group's report represented a consensus view, particularly significant given the broad scope of the members' expertise in counterterrorism, intelligence, oversight, privacy and civil liberties. The President again stated his expectation that, in light of new technologies, the United States use its intelligence collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security while supporting our foreign policy, respecting privacy and civil liberties, maintaining the public trust, and reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure."

Update at 6:00 p.m. ET. Concern Over Proposed Curb On National Security Letters:

The recommendations from the panel also include tightening federal law enforcement's use of national security letters, "which give the government sweeping authority to demand financial and phone records without prior court approval in national security cases."

An FBI official who spoke to NPR's Carrie Johnson expressed "grave concern" about that particular recommendation, saying the letters are used in the initial stages of thousands of national security investigations each year. They could lose nearly all their value if judicial signoffs delay the process of obtaining them.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that it welcomes the report.

"NSA's surveillance programs are un-American, unconstitutional, and need to be reined in," said Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "We urge President Obama to accept his own Review Panel's recommendations and end these programs."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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