A White House report released Wednesday called for major changes to the government’s surveillance programs, including limits on the National Security Administration’s ability to store phone and email data in an effort to better protect American’s privacy.
The report, ordered by President Barack Obama to review wide-ranging government spying practices, also found that the bulk collection of Americans' phone records "was not essential" to thwarting terror attacks. The assertion contrasts U.S. intelligence officials repeated claims that collecting telephone data has been pivitol preventing uncovering threats to national security.
In all, the report included 46 recommendations to reform government monitoring of online and telecommunications for the purposes of national security. Among the key recommendations was that the government end storage of so-called "meta-data" of phone and email communications and instead provide for private storage of that information "for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes."
Obama is expected to speak on the report, and enact some of its recommendations either in part or in whole, in January.
"The president again stated his expectation that, in light of new technologies, the United States use its intelligence collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security while supporting our foreign policy, respecting privacy and civil liberties, maintaining the public trust, and reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure," the White House said in a readout of the president's meeting with members of his review board on Wednesday.
The administration added: "The president expressed his personal appreciation to the group members for the extraordinary work that went into producing this comprehensive and high quality report, and outlined for the group how he intends to utilize their work."
The report includes proposed overhauls to other elements of the intelligence infrastructure, including the National Security Agency. The review board also recommends applying privacy standards to information collected about non-U.S. persons, and beefing up internal safeguards against future leaks. The report calls for more continuously monitoring the status of individuals granted security clearances and employing technology to guard against future leaks of information like those pioneered by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
"The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far. The bulk collection of Americans’ data by the U.S. government must end," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This momentous report from the president’s closest advisers is a vindication of the efforts of a bipartisan group of legislators that has been working for years to protect Americans’ privacy by reining in these intelligence authorities."
The review group also calls for creating positions within the NSA to improve safeguards for individuals, and splitting the positions of NSA director and the person in charge of managing U.S. Cyber Command.
Obama empaneled the group – consisting of five veterans of Richard Clarke, Michael Morell, Geoffrey Stone, Cass Sunstein and Peter Swire – in August. The review group was an extension of Obama’s promise in May to enact a more overarching review of counterterrorism policy as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Obama’s efforts have been significantly shaped by the leaks orchestrated by fugitive computer specialist Snowden, whose leaks of classified NSA programs have prompted some measure of public outrage toward the government’s intelligence-gathering practices. Among the most explosive revelations was the detailing of government mining of vast amounts of “meta-data” from phone and internet companies.
The NSA programs have prompted some degree of outrage from technology and telecommunications giants, as well. A group of executives representing some of the largest online and communications firms met on Tuesday with the president at the White House.
The report comes after a federal judge ruled this week that some of the government's data-collection tactics violate the constitution, a ruling that could reverberate through the courts and shape Obama's decision-making on implementing the review board's proposals.
NBC's Michael Isikoff contributed to this report.
First published December 18 2013, 4:33 PM