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The Boston Globe


Surveillance review may clear path for Congress

WASHINGTON — A White House review of US surveillance programs has given Congress some temporary political cover after lawmakers failed this year to overhaul spy operations, and could break the legislative snarl that followed months of global outrage over privacy intrusions.

Since last summer, a deeply divided Congress has tussled over how best to protect Americans’ privacy rights by limiting National Security Agency powers to track terrorists.

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But a presidential advisory panel’s 46 tough recommendations, released last week by the White House, may offer a way ahead for lawmakers who face the voters next fall. They can point to the finding to save face politically with security-minded constituents if surveillance is scaled back aggressively.

‘‘The American public is expressing an opinion that it feels safer, and we don’t need as many of these intrusive-sounding programs as we needed a decade ago,’’ said Tom Newcomb, a former CIA officer and lawyer who served as a counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush.

‘‘The political risk, as I see it, is all of this changes if we get a terrorist attack or a significant attempt that scares us again,’’ said Newcomb, now a criminal justice and political science professor at Heidelberg University in Ohio. ‘‘And then Congress, which has generally taken it upon itself to assign blame, will blame those who reformed’’ security operations.

At the least, the review could prod Congress into defining the extent to which the United States should spy on its citizens and foreign allies.

The recommendations ‘‘reaffirm what many of my colleagues and I have been saying since June — the NSA has gone too far,’’ said US Representative James F. Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin.

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The review group adopted the central part of legislation that he is promoting — barring the NSA from its massive daily sweep of US telephone records.

US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said he found a lot in the report ‘‘for a reformer to like.’’

There’s no guarantee that President Obama will embrace all the recommendations from the group, which includes former intelligence officials. Also, the review drew sharp criticism from lawmakers who fear that limiting surveillance could lead to future attacks on the country.

In a statement Friday, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said some of the group’s conclusions were ‘‘misleading.’’ They urged the White House to reject a recommendation to scrap the bulk collection of telephone records known as metadata.

‘‘The NSA’s metadata program is a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently ‘connect the dots’ on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the United States,’’ wrote Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, and Representatives Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, and Dutch Ruppersburger, a Maryland Democrat. ‘‘We continue to believe that it is vital this lawful collection program continue.’’

The surveillance programs were revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose release of smuggled agency documents provided details of the government’s secret reach into the private lives of people worldwide.

In the months since, polls have reflected Americans’ strong disapproval of the programs, and foreign leaders have castigated the administration for what they described as prying into their personal and diplomatic communications.

Each day, the NSA programs collect hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records from US telephone companies, and perhaps billions of Internet messages from around the world. The NSA says it does not listen in on the phone calls or read the Internet messages without specific court orders, made on a case-by-case basis.

But intelligence officials do collect the metadata — specific information about the calls and messages including how long they lasted, what time they were initiated, and the phone numbers of each party — in their effort to track communications of suspected terrorists.

Obama said at a news conference Friday that he would decide next month which recommendations to accept. He defended the NSA program as ‘‘not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around.’’

Still, he added, ‘‘just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should.’’ That was seen as a hint at changes he could make.

Until now, the administration has favored a proposal by Feinstein and Rogers that would keep the phone-records surveillance in place but impose stronger court and congressional oversight of the NSA. The committee leaders also would create penalties for people who access classified information without authorization, and enhance whistle-blower protections for intelligence agency employees.

The congressional committees have worked closely with US spy agencies since the 9/11 attacks, and generally are more sympathetic to their needs.

Legislation filed by Sensenbrenner, who helped strengthen spy powers in 2001, and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees is far more aggressive in limiting surveillance.

It would prohibit the NSA from conducting bulk collection of metadata, and create a privacy advocate to attend hearings and, in some cases, appeal rulings of a secret intelligence court that oversees government surveillance requests. The court currently only hears from the government’s advocates.

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