Skip to main content

Review: NSA snooping program should stay in place

By Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez, CNN
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Independent report recommends metadata collection should have more safeguards
  • President Barack Obama ordered review after Edward Snowden leaks
  • Report is part of overall review of U.S. intelligence gathering
  • Report recommends new limits on spying on foreigners and foreign leaders

(CNN) -- An independent assessment of National Security Agency surveillance ordered by President Barack Obama recommends a controversial program aimed at collecting Americans' electronic communications remain in place.

But the effort predominantly covering so-called metadata relating to phone records and e-mail must have tighter constraints and greater transparency, according to the report released on Wednesday by the presidential Review Group on Intelligence.

Some 40 recommendations -- considered modest in scope -- were offered by the group on how the United States should continue collecting and storing data domestically and abroad.

Among them are calls for greater judicial oversight and more public transparency.

NSA scandal puts Obama on hot seat
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges." National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges."
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
Photos: NSA leaker Edward Snowden Photos: NSA leaker Edward Snowden

"Because our adversaries operate through the use of complex communications technologies, the National Security Agency, with its impressive capabilities and talented officers, is indispensable to keeping our country and our allies safe and secure," said the report's executive summary.

The panel was created amid a political firestorm that followed leaks last summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The disclosures triggered outrage among civil libertarians and many members of Congress, who considered the degree of data collection an overreach of post-9/11 anti-terror efforts.

Leaks about surveillance and a secret court that works with the NSA put enormous pressure on Obama, who came into office promising a more transparent government.

5 questions about the NSA ruling

Key members of Congress are considering changes to programs under the Patriot Act law to restrict NSA snooping programs.

"The message is very clear," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said following the report's release. "NSA, you've gone too far."

John Walker ran a father and son spy ring, passing classified material to the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985. Walker was a Navy communication specialist with financial difficulties when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and sold a piece of cyphering equipment. Navy and Defense officials said that Walker enabled the Soviet Union to unscramble military communications and pinpoint the location of U.S. submarines at all times. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors promised leniency for Walker's son Michael Walker, a former Navy seaman. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years. John Walker ran a father and son spy ring, passing classified material to the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985. Walker was a Navy communication specialist with financial difficulties when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and sold a piece of cyphering equipment. Navy and Defense officials said that Walker enabled the Soviet Union to unscramble military communications and pinpoint the location of U.S. submarines at all times. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors promised leniency for Walker's son Michael Walker, a former Navy seaman. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years.
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks

Leahy mentioned the section in law allowing telephone data collection "was not essential to preventing attacks," according to the report.

That directly contradicts national security officials, who have said the authority had helped thwart terror plots both in the United States and abroad.

"Just because we can collect massive amounts of data doesn't mean we should do so," Leahy said.

Read the report here

The review panel said that when government officials consider national security risks, they should also consider risks to privacy, freedom, civil liberties, relationships and trade with other nations.

It also recommended new limits on spying on foreigners and foreign leaders following controversy around disclosures of U.S. snooping on overseas presidents, like Germany's Angela Merkel.

The panel said intelligence officials should weigh if a foreign leader is believed to be duplicitous, if another country has a cooperative relationship with the United States and the political and diplomatic fallout if the leader became aware of such surveillance.

Heads of state in Brazil and Germany have been among those expressing recent outrage at alleged surveillance by the U.S. government in their countries.

The independent panel said spying on foreigners should only be conducted to protect national security and U.S. allies, not directed for economic issues such as trade secret theft.

Snowden's open letter offers to help Brazil investigate NSA surveillance

Mike Morrell, the former acting CIA director and member of the panel, said the recommendations are not "in any way disarming" the intelligence community by removing tools needed to protect the United States.

Fellow panel member Richard Clarke, a former top counter-terrorism official in two administrations, said the recommendations also are not a signal that the fight against terrorism has ended.

Additionally, Obama will deliver a speech likely in January on the path forward following the report recommendations, which include presidential oversight of monitoring of foreign leaders and agreements with nations like France and Germany on what is acceptable and what is not.

Obama met on Wednesday with members of the review group to discuss their findings.

He has to decide which of the recommendations will be accepted, which could be revised and which will be rejected.

Obama vowed this month to find ways of reforming the NSA, though he also defended the agency's work.

Release of the findings came two days after a federal judge in Washington ruled preliminarily that NSA data collection of telephone metadata was probably unconstitutional on privacy grounds.

Opinion: Who broke the law, Snowden or the NSA?

The group's other recommendations included:

-- Subjecting U.S. citizens and foreigners to the same privacy standards

-- Urging that the U.S. government support, and not undermine, encryption standards

-- Tightening classified information protection, including more monitoring and routine vetting of people who access classified information. And background investigations should be done by government employees or by a nonprofit private company, not for-profit firms criticized for not thoroughly vetting contractors hired by the NSA, like Snowden, the group advised.

CNN's Jim Acosta, Tom Cohen and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Data mining & privacy
June 23, 2013 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
He's a high-school dropout who worked his way into the most secretive computers in U.S. intelligence as a defense contractor.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
Traitor or patriot? Low-level systems analyst or highly trained spy?
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
What are the takeaways from Snowden's NBC interview? You might be surprised.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1152 GMT (1952 HKT)
Months after accepting asylum in Russia, Snowden asked Putin about Moscow's own surveillance practices.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
A federal judge has refused the Obama administration's request to extend storage of classified NSA telephone surveillance data beyond the current five-year limit.
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 0044 GMT (0844 HKT)
From his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange said that everyone in the world will be just as effectively monitored soon -- at least digitally.
March 11, 2014 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
In a rare public talk via the Web, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden urged a tech conference audience to help "fix" the U.S. government's surveillance of its citizens.
August 2, 2013 -- Updated 0355 GMT (1155 HKT)
The White House is "very disappointed" that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
December 10, 2013 -- Updated 1357 GMT (2157 HKT)
Spies with surveillance agencies in the U.S. and U.K. infiltrated video games like "World of Warcraft" in a hunt for terrorists "hiding in plain sight" online.
August 2, 2013 -- Updated 1139 GMT (1939 HKT)
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both held jobs that gave them access to some of their country's most secret and sensitive intelligence. They chose to share that material with the world and are now paying for it.
August 1, 2013 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
The NSA's controversial intelligence-gathering programs have prevented 54 terrorist attacks around the world, including 13 in the United States.
August 1, 2013 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
You've never heard of XKeyscore, but it definitely knows you. The National Security Agency's top-secret program essentially makes available everything you've ever done on the Internet.
August 18, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
You may have never heard of Lavabit and Silent Circle. That's because they offered encrypted (secure) e-mail services, something most Americans have probably never thought about needing.
July 24, 2013 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere ... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone."
July 2, 2013 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
President Barack Obama responds to outrage by European leaders over revelations of alleged U.S. spying.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1954 GMT (0354 HKT)
Browse through a history of high-profile intelligence leaking cases.
July 2, 2013 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
Former President George W. Bush talks Snowden, AIDS, Mandela and his legacy.
June 26, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Edward Snowden took a job with an NSA contractor in order to gather evidence about U.S. surveillance programs.
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 1047 GMT (1847 HKT)
With reports of NSA snooping, many people have started wondering about their personl internet security.
August 14, 2013 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Click through our gallery to learn about other major leaks and what happened in the aftermath.
June 9, 2013 -- Updated 2002 GMT (0402 HKT)
What really goes on inside America's most secretive agency? CNN's Chris Lawrence reports.
ADVERTISEMENT