WASHINGTON — A panel of presidential advisers who reviewed the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices urged President Obama on Wednesday to end the government’s systematic collection of logs of all Americans’ phone calls, and to keep those in private hands, “for queries and data mining” only by court order.
In a more than 300-page report made public by the White House, the group of five intelligence and legal experts also strongly recommended that any operation to spy on foreign leaders would have to pass a rigorous test that weighs the potential economic or diplomatic costs if the operation becomes public.
The decision to monitor those communications, it said, should be made by the president and his advisers, not the intelligence agencies. It also recommends new limits on surveillance of ordinary non-Americans. It argues for applying to foreign targets of intelligence the protections accorded to Americans under the Privacy Act of 1974, meaning the government could release very little information about them.
The panel also declared that the NSA should cease efforts to undermine work to create more secure encryption standards and make clear that “it will not in any way subvert, undermine, weakenm or make vulnerable generally available commercial encryption.”
It also said the United States should get out of the business of secretly collecting flaws in common computer programs and using them for mounting cyberattacks, because the technique undermines confidence in USproducts. That technique, using what are called “zero day” flaws that have never been discovered before, were critical to the cyberattacks that the United States and Israel launched on Iran in an effort to slow its nuclear program.
The recommendations would remove from the NSA’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.
The report was commissioned by Obama after the revelations made by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA contractor who cleaned the agency out of many of its secret documents. Taken together with a federal court decision this week that found some of the bulk collection of telephone data “almost Orwellian” and objections from Silicon Valley, the report adds to pressure on Obama to rein in the NSA for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“What we’re saying is just because we can doesn’t mean we should,” said Richard Clarke, one of the advisers.
Forty-six recommendations were included in the report that was delivered to the White House over the weekend. The Obama administration released the document to the public after a private briefing.
It is unclear how many of the recommendations will ultimately become a reality. Some would require action by Obama alone, while others would require legislation from Congress.
Obama has already rejected one recommendation: splitting command of the NSA, which conducts surveillance, from the US Cyber Command, the Pentagon’s cyberwarfare unit, to avoid concentrating too much power in the hands of a single individual.
Among other recommendations, the group suggested reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — which oversees national security surveillance inside the United States, and hears arguments only from the Justice Department — by creating a “public interest advocate to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties” before the court.