A presidential advisory panel has recommended sweeping limits on the US government’s surveillance programmes, including requiring a court to sign off on individual searches of telephone records.
The five-member panel, whose proposals come in the wake of revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, also called on Wednesday for new tests before Washington spies on foreign leaders.
Among the most contentious recommendations was that the NSA halt its collection of billions of telephone records, and that those records be held by telecommunications providers or a private third party. The US government would then need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to search the data.
We don't see the need for the government to be retaining that data.
“We don’t see the need for the government to be retaining that data,” said Richard Clarke, a member of the panel and a former White House counterterrorism adviser.
With regard to US surveillance programmes more broadly, “we tend to believe there should be further judicial oversight than there has been,” Clarke said.
The panel’s recommendations allow for exceptions “in emergencies,” leaving open the possibility of intelligence agencies scanning the information quickly and asking for permission later if they suspect imminent attack.
It remains to be seen how many of the panel’s 46 recommendations will be accepted by President Barack Obama and the US Congress.
NSA officials have staunchly defended the record-collection programme, calling it essential to link terrorist plotters overseas with co-conspirators inside the US.
“There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots,” NSA Director-General Keith Alexander recently told a Senate committee. “Given that the threat is growing, I believe that is an unacceptable risk to our country.”
Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director who is on the panel, said members do not believe the proposals would undermine the capabilities of the US intelligence community to keep citizens safe.
The panel also proposed five tests it said should be met before Washington conducts surveillance on foreign leaders, after Snowden’s revelations of US spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sparked outrage in those countries.
Before spying on foreign leaders, the panel said, US leaders should determine whether such surveillance is merited by “significant threats” to national security and whether the nation involved is one “whose leaders we should accord a high degree of respect and deference”.
Other recommendations included guidelines for establishing reciprocal non-spying agreements with the US and changes to the vetting process for those trying to obtain security clearances.