Report: NSA review task force calls for restricting phone records program

A presidential committee tasked with reviewing the operations of the National Security Agency and surveillance activities will recommend restrictions be placed on the NSA program that has been collecting telephone metadata on virtually all U.S. telephone calls, according to multiple reports.

The reports, from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, indicate that the program is likely going to continue but the panel will recommend that it be placed under greater oversight and that some changes could be made to its operations. The reports cited unnamed officials who have seen the task force's report, which isn't due to the White House until Sunday.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the panel proposed that the metadata records be held not by the NSA but instead by the phone companies or a third-party organization. Additionally, the Times reported there would be new "restraints that would be intended to increase privacy protections."

The NSA program on phone data, which has been running for seven years, collects so-called metadata, such as phone numbers and the length and location of every call. The Obama administration has argued that the program is lawful under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the NSA authority to access business records relevant to an investigation against terrorism. Additionally, the NSA has said that it is not targeting the content of phone calls.

Nevertheless, there has been strong pushback from some lawmakers in Congress and civil liberties groups since the program was disclosed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The task force, officially called the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, put its recommendations in a report hundreds of pages long, according to the Journal. The five-member group includes intelligence and legal experts, several of whom have connections to President Obama. The group includes Richard Clarke, who served in the Clinton administration and both Bush administrations and has become an expert on counterterrorism and digital conflict; Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA; and Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who served in the Obama administration and is married to Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations.

Reports from earlier this year indicated that the phone records program does not scoop up information directly from T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) or Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), in part because foreign companies own portions of T-Mobile and Verizon. However, the reports also noted that the NSA can still get data on 99 percent of U.S. phone traffic because nearly all calls eventually go over the networks of companies that cooperate with the NSA. Reports have added that AT&T (NYSE:T) and Sprint (NYSE:S) have long cooperated with the government.

Keith Alexander, who will soon retire as director of the NSA and the general in charge of Cyber Command, has told Congress that it would not be possible to dismantle the bulk collection of American telephone metadata until the NSA had a method to quickly search through data held by companies like AT&T and Verizon. According to the New York Times, many telecommunications companies do not retain the information for more than 18 months, and say they do not want to take on the burden and legal issues of holding it longer.

Alexander suggested in an interview with the Times two months ago that it may be several years before the United States can develop technology that would make it unnecessary for the government to collect that data in its own storage sites.

Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to discuss any specific recommendations of the panel, according to the Times. "Our review is looking across the board at our intelligence gathering to ensure that as we gather intelligence, we are properly accounting for both the security of our citizens and our allies, and the privacy concerns shared by Americans and citizens around the world," she said. "We need to ensure that our intelligence resources are most effectively supporting our foreign policy and national security objectives--that we are more effectively weighing the risks and rewards of our activities."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this NYT article
- see this The Verge article

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