White House Releases Report On NSA Surveillance Program

Dec 18, 2013
Originally published on December 18, 2013 5:34 pm
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A presidential advisory panel is recommending major changes to the way the National Security Agency conducts surveillance. The White House released the group's report today. Richard Clarke is a member of the panel.

RICHARD CLARKE: Although we found no evidence of abuse by NSA or the FBI, the potential for abuse in the future is there. And the technology is certainly there to create a surveillance state in the future.

BLOCK: The recommendations are far-reaching and could mean the end of one of the most controversial NSA programs, the collection of the telephone records of millions of Americans. NPR's Larry Abramson has been following the NSA story, has reviewed the report and he joins me now. And, Larry, let's start with that mass collection of phone records. The panel today said, flat out, the government shouldn't be doing that.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: That's right. They said they have no business collecting this information in advance and then deciding when it wants to query it. And basically, we're talking about all the phone records in this country, practically, stored in what has become known as the metadata program or the 215 program. So, yeah, I think that the program would have to be shut down given the recommendations that they're making.

Now, the panel does say that the companies already hold on to a lot of this information and that the phone companies could simply have a store of the information. The NSA or the FBI could query this information but only under a much higher standard than they currently face.

BLOCK: And this would be a really sweeping change if the government were to do this. Would it mean that the NSA would not be able to search this metadata, something that the agency has argued is critical for what they do?

ABRAMSON: They could, but they would have to have particularized suspicion for every search, rather than collecting everything and then deciding later on what they were going to search. It's completely different from the way it works now, where the government holds on to everything all the time.

BLOCK: There was another big issue that the panel addressed and that's the leaks by Edward Snowden, which showed that the NSA was eavesdropping on foreign leaders. What did the group say about that?

ABRAMSON: Well, they do not say that we should never spy on foreign leaders. But they say there really should be a kind of risk analysis to assess the possible blowback from this information getting out versus the profit that we might have gotten from the eavesdropping in the first place. And I think the feeling is that the negative repercussions from these leaks is so terrible that it wasn't worth doing it in the first place.

They also say that there should be a much higher level of approval. Basically, the president himself or some of the top officials in the White House should have to authorize surveillance of, say, Angela Merkel's phone records, as we found out was happening, or her phone calls, actually. And there would be a much higher standard for figuring out when we should be spying on our allies, in particular.

BLOCK: Currently, Larry, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has had the authority to oversee these programs and to rein them in when it feels it needs to. And that court has come in for a lot of criticism. There are recommendations here also for how the court should operate in the future.

ABRAMSON: Right. The panel says that they should - that the Congress or somebody should create a public interest advocate. This is an idea a lot of people have backed. Remember, the secret court only hears from one side. It hears from the government. So we would have a more adversarial process if, say, a civil liberties advocate was able to argue against some of the surveillance. Court said - the panel said that the court should also be more transparent and acknowledge that this is already beginning because we're seeing lots of their opinions coming out. And they also say that the court appointment process should be changed so the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is more politically balanced.

BLOCK: So, Larry, these are recommendations from this panel. What happens now?

ABRAMSON: Well, now the president has to review the recommendations. They are not binding, by any means. There are 46 recommendations. It's safe to assume that not all of them will be taken up. He's expected to announce some of his changes to the reforms. There are other reviews of intelligence surveillance going on that will be incorporated into the president's decision-making.

The White House has already rejected a key recommendation that this panel supports, which is to basically say that the National Security Agency should be headed by a civilian. So they've already lost that one, it appears. Some recommendations would require legislation and Congress is still very divided about where it wants to go with this. Civil liberties groups are hoping that this report will give lawmakers a nudge and force them to do something.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Larry Abramson. Larry, thanks.

ABRAMSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.