White House Unveils Recommendations To Overhaul U.S. Surveillance Policies

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By Alexei Alexis  

Dec. 18 --The White House Dec. 18 released a report with dozens of recommendations from an independent panel on ways to overhaul U.S. surveillance policies amid a growing privacy debate.

The report, which is dated Dec. 12, provides more than 40 recommendations, including ending the National Security Agency's practice of maintaining a vast database of U.S. phone customer records. Although promising to look at the proposals, the White House hasn't committed to taking action on any of them.

The report was initially expected to be released after a review scheduled to be completed in January, 2014. However, it was unveiled early due to inaccurate and incomplete reports in the press about the document's content, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.

"We felt it was important to allow people to see the full report to draw their own conclusions," Carney said Dec. 18, during his daily press briefing.

On Aug. 9, the president unveiled a plan that included forming the review group . Within weeks, the White House named the members of the group .

On Dec. 13, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement that although the report had been submitted to the president, it would not be made public for several weeks.

Review Process Expected.

Over the next several weeks, the White House will be reviewing the report and considering a path forward, including sorting through which recommendations will be implemented, which might require further study and which won't be pursued, according to Carney.

"It's a substantive, lengthy report, and it merits serious review and assessment," he added. "When we finish the internal review, the overall internal review in January, the President will deliver remarks to outline the outcomes of our work."

The report, which is more than 300 pages, was prepared by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, established by President Barack Obama in August in response to outrage over controversial NSA surveillance activities, including a program that involves the bulk collection of phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The review panel briefed Obama in the Situation Room of the White House Dec. 18, before the report was publicly released. Panel members include: Richard Clarke, a national security adviser in previous administrations; Michael Morell, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama; Geoffrey Stone, University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama; and Peter Swire, former President Clinton's chief counselor for privacy from 1999-2001 in the Office of Management and Budget.

In her statements before the report was released, Hayden said the "Review Group's report draws on the group members' considerable expertise in intelligence, counterterrorism, civil liberties, law and privacy matters and on their consultations with the U.S. government, privacy and civil liberties advocates, and the private sector."

"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 White House said in a separate Dec. 18 statement. "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 message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: 'You have gone too far.' "  
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman,
Senate Judiciary Committee

The administration won't be in a position to comment on the recommendations while it is reviewing them, according to the statement. "In January, the President looks forward to speaking to the American people, as well as to the international community, to outline the outcomes of our work, including our plans to address the Review Group's recommendations," the statement said.


The panel's recommendations included:

  • enacting legislation to terminate the storage of bulk telephony metadata by the government under Section 215 and transition "as soon as reasonably possible" to a system in which such information is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party;
  • adopting a policy that prohibits the government in any way from subverting, undermining, weakening or making vulnerable generally available commercial software;
  •  creating a privacy and civil liberties policy official located both in the White House national security staff and the Office of Management and Budget; and
  •  making the director of NSA a Senate-confirmed position.

The report was hailed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has criticized the NSA's activities and called for surveillance changes.

"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,' " Leahy said in a Dec. 18 statement. "The bulk collection of Americans' data by the U.S. government must end. This momentous report from the President's closest advisers is a vindication of the efforts of a bipartisan group of legislators that has been working for years to protect Americans' privacy by reining in these intelligence authorities."

Obama Meets With Industry Leaders.

Obama discussed NSA surveillance issues during a Dec. 17 meeting with leaders of some of the nation's top technology companies, including Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc., Apple Inc. and Twitter Inc.

"We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the President our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform," the companies said in a joint statement.

According to the White House, Obama made clear his belief in an "open, free, and innovative" Internet and listened to the group's concerns and recommendations.

Ed Black, president and chief executive officer of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said the meeting was a clear signal that the White House now understands that there are some "very large and important issues at stake."

"There are ramifications for the freedom and openness of the Internet and the credibility of both the U.S. government and U.S. companies," Black told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 18. "Previously, I don't think these issues were properly evaluated in terms of the costs and benefits of various surveillance policies."

Meanwhile, a federal district court Dec. 16 for the first time ruled that plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of a NSA telephone surveillance program had demonstrated a sufficient likelihood of success on the merits to grant injunctive relief (see related report).

By Alexei Alexis  

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The 308-page report, "Liberty and Security in a Changing World: Report and Recommendations of The President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies," is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2013-12-12_rg_final_report.pdf.  


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