Panel to propose dramatic overhaul of NSA surveillance programs


Updated at 1:25 p.m. ET.

A presidential task force convened in the wake of controversial disclosures of National Security Agency surveillance practices is on the verge of proposing a dramatic overhaul of the government’s spying authority.

The task force’s draft report, due on Sunday, stands among a series of internal reviews commissioned by the administration after NSA leaker Edward Snowden first lifted the veil from the extensive data collection at the heart of U.S. government surveillance practices in June. The White House will confirm its receipt of the panel’s report on Friday, according to CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett. The report will be held in abeyance for several days, but it will be released for public review before the end of the year. 



 With the internal policy development process approaching the finish line, the goal is to roll out the new NSA procedures in January. Most of the changes will be enacted through internal administration procedural changes, though some issues will require consultation with Congress. The president will speak about the changes in his State of the Union address in January, putting a rhetorical bow on a contentious policy debate that has gripped Washington for more than six months.

Though its recommendations could change before the report is finalized, the panel’s draft includes some far-reaching limits on the way the government collects and stores information.

One recommendation would create an adversarial presence to push back against the government’s case for expanded surveillance authority at court hearings, the New York Times reports. At present, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court only hears the government’s case for expanded surveillance authority. The idea of creating a privacy advocate to present an opposing view has been embraced by some, including President Obama, who say the additional safeguard could help prevent overreach.

The draft also recommends that administration officials, including the president, regularly review which foreign leaders are having their communications monitored by the U.S. government, according to the Times. The move is likely intended to soothe concerns voiced by U.S. allies after it was revealed in October that the U.S. was monitoring the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among other foreign leaders.


 Perhaps the most far-reaching alteration would impact the government’s collection of telephony metadata. That program has emerged as the biggest target of privacy advocates, who say it encroaches on Americans’ constitutional right to privacy without due cause, but it has also been defended by intelligence officials and some in Congress who say it provides an invaluable national security tool.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the draft proposes to store any metadata collected by the government within the telephone companies or a third party, rather than the government itself. It would also institute tighter restrictions on when the government is able to query the data or examine it further.

Despite an earlier report that the draft would recommend moving the leadership of the agency from military to civilian hands, the White House confirmed Friday that the agency would continue to be led by the head of the military's Cyber Command unit. Currently, that post is held by Gen. Keith Alexander.

Any move to fundamentally alter the government’s vast surveillance architecture, which was considerably strengthened after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, is likely to provoke a fresh spat between opponents and defenders of the government’s spying practices.

Opponents, empowered by Snowden’s disclosures and emboldened by public opinion polls reflecting widespread disapproval of the government’s snooping, have sounded the alarm, warning that the government is overstepping the bounds created by the constitution and usurping American citizens’ right to privacy.

Defenders, led by intelligence officials but joined by some in Congress, have said it would be naive to curtail U.S. surveillance in a dangerous age of global terrorism. They’ve also emphasized the rigorous limits and oversight that attend the current system, arguing that all three branches of government are duly invested in overseeing the surveillance programs as they exist today.

Some of the group’s recommendations, such as the adversarial presence at the FISA court and the third-party storage of metadata, dovetail closely with changes proposed by members of Congress in the aftermath of the programs’ disclosure. Their inclusion in the panel’s draft could provide a boost to lawmakers who are seeking to curtail the government’s spying authority.

The panel, known officially as the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, includes a number of legal scholars and intelligence experts. Among their ranks: Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism official in the Bush Administration, Cass Sunstein, Mr. Obama’s former regulatory czar, Michael Morrell, a former deputy CIA director, and Geoffrey Stone, a former dean of the University of Chicago law school, where the president was once a faculty member.