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NSA spies should clean up their act, says Prez Obama-picked panel

Report recommends less secrecy, more transparency and accountability

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An independent review board has recommended that the US federal government continue its myriad foreign and domestic surveillance programs, but only if it makes significant changes to protect individual privacy.

The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was convened by President Obama in August in the wake of revelations by NSA leaker Edward Snowden about the breadth and scope of US intelligence agencies' activities on home soil.

In a 308-page report [PDF] that was made public on Wednesday, the group said that while it acknowledges that some spying is necessary to protect national security, the government has not done enough to ensure that individuals are secure from unwarranted search and invasion of privacy.

"We recommend concrete steps to promote transparency and accountability, and thus to promote public trust, which is essential in this domain," the report states.

President Obama met the Review Group on Wednesday to discuss its findings.

Among the group's recommendations is that the NSA be reorganized such that the head of the agency is a Senate-confirmed position and civilians are eligible to hold the job. Currently, the NSA is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense and its director simultaneously serves as commander of the US Cyber Command military division. The report strongly recommends that the next NSA director be a civilian.

The review group also would like to see the government form a new Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board with "broad authority to review government activity relating to foreign intelligence and counterterrorism whenever that activity has implications for civil liberties and privacy." In addition, it recommends that a new position of Special Assistant to the President for Privacy be created.

The process for authorizing surveillance should be reformed, the group says, such that intelligence requirements and methods must have "highest-level approval."

More transparency

The report recommends that the ability of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to force telephone and internet service providers to disclose private information to the government should be curtailed, and that the FBI's practice of issuing National Security Letters be similarly restricted.

Furthermore, the report says, where surveillance operations are carried out on US citizens, information about those surveillance programs should be made available to Congress and the public "to the greatest extent possible (subject only to the need to protect classified information)." It recommends that the government routinely disclose general data about the requests it makes for information, and that service providers be allowed to do the same when their customers are the subjects of surveillance.

The government need not stop its practice of collecting bulk metadata about Americans' phone calls, the group found. But it recommended that this data be held by a private party, rather than the government itself, and that the government should only be able to request specific information when it is needed for investigations.

In all, the report makes 46 specific recommendations as to how the government should reform its surveillance practices and the US intelligence community as a whole.

Whether the Obama administration will implement those recommendations, on the other hand, is another matter. Written as it was by an independent review group commissioned by the White House, the report is non-binding and carries no real policy weight.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Obama administration said that while the President is reviewing the report, the White House will not comment on any of the recommendations made in it. ®

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