WASHINGTON — The presidential advisory group that recommended curbing the government’s vast surveillance programs because it’s an overreaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has set the stage for a passionate debate in Washington over the balance between America’s liberties and national security.
The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies proposed nearly 50 changes to the National Security Agency’s contentious spying programs, which have guided intelligence gathering by the United States since 2001 in what has been dubbed the war on terror.
“The central recommendations, if adopted, would go far to bring the intelligence programs and the laws passed after 9/11 into line with the constitutional requirements for judicial oversight and with the reforms that have guided intelligence collection since the 1970s,” said James A. Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
Obama, who will leave Friday for a two-week family vacation in Hawaii, will review the panel’s 300-page report on his trip and announce changes to the spying programs in January.
He already has some changes to the programs _ even before he received the recommendations last week _ though aides have declined to reveal what they are.
The administration did confirm Thursday that it will not implement a proposal calling for a separation between the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command. The two offices both fall under the NSA and its director, but the panel says the two offices serve distinctly different missions and should be separated.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on other specific proposals, saying the administration is open to all recommendations. “There is not a single recommendation that does not merit serious consideration,” he said.
Obama appointed the panel this summer after former government contractor Edward Snowden began releasing classified information to the media showing the breadth of the federal government’s spying programs. Documents show the NSA had been collecting telephone and email records on tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil, and spying on a host of global institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The panel, whose members are close to the Obama administration, met behind closed doors for months. Its uncensored report was publicly released this week because of what the White House called “inaccurate and incomplete” articles in the media.
Intelligence officials and NSA defenders on Capitol Hill have often cited the 2001 terrorist attacks as justification for the agency’s sweeping data collections. The panel, however, says this reasoning is overused and has become a trump card excuse for overreach on behalf of the U.S. government.
“We’re not saying that the struggle against terrorism is over,” said panel member Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council for President Bill Clinton. He later worked for President George W. Bush
But the group does say post-2001 programs may have been an overreach.
“Because we were acting in a moment of crisis, there were always the risk that the new rules _ and the new authorities granted to the intelligence community _ might have gone too far,” the report says. “We conclude that some of the authorities that were expanded or created in the aftermath of September 11 unduly sacrifice fundamental interests in individual liberty, personal privacy, and democratic governance.”
Often citing the iconic Church Committee report, the special congressional delegation tasked with examining the nation’s rogue intelligence practices in the 1970s, the report concludes that history proves the government is incapable of being trusted with such great power. “This danger, the (Church) Committee observed, is inherent in the very essence of government intelligence programs, because the ‘natural tendency of government is toward abuse of power,’” the report says.
The war on terror began under Bush, who was criticized for authorizing a secret domestic spying program and military tribunals without court involvement. But Obama continued the fight with a troop surge in Afghanistan and unprecedented use of military drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, including Americans. He had been skeptical about surveillance programs as a senator and a presidential candidate, but he said he changed his mind after entering the White House.
Defenders of the NSA’s bulk collections have consistently cited dozens of thwarted terror plots as proof of their utility. “We believe that it is an important tool . . . in our efforts to combat threats against the United States and the American people,” Carney reiterated Thursday.
But the panel strongly disputed those assessments, saying phone collection “was not essential to preventing attacks.”
Michael Morell, a panel member and former CIA deputy director, said he did not believe the recommendations “will in any way undermine the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community to collect the information that it needs to collect to keep the country safe.”
The proposals include an end to the NSA’s storage of Americans’ telephone records, more stringent handling of Americans’ data that is collected incidentally through targeting foreigners, concrete standards for targeting communications of foreign leaders, and the creation of a public interest advocate to represent Americans’ interest in front of the secret court that authorizes the spying programs.
Obama could administer some of the recommendations through executive actions, but others would require approval from a divided Congress, where support for NSA changes does not fall strictly along party lines.
“The report recognizes a fundamental truth: Reform is vital to restore and retain public confidence and trust in our intelligence programs,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Doubt, suspicion and distrust will only deepen, and jeopardize our democracy without reform.”
But Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he had “serious concerns” with some recommendations. “Any intelligence collection reforms must be careful to preserve important national security capabilities,” he said.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.