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Key Recommendations from Advisory Group to Reform NSA

Key Recommendations from Advisory Group to Reform NSA

President Obama’s advisory panel on how to improve the National Security Agency in light of surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden revealed their recommendations this week.

The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, a group of close White House advisers including Obama ally and controversial constitutional law professor Cass Sunstein, revealed this list of 46 recommendations to much fanfare. From curbing metadata collection to improving civilian oversight, it is laden not only with practical solutions but the reassurance that the United States has responsibilities to its citizens which may sometimes be in conflict with each other: those of privacy and protection from outside harm. 

On the issue of surveillance, the group precedes its recommendations with warnings that there are certain forms of monitoring in which a government must never engage. Surveillance, they argue, should never be used “to punish their political enemies; to restrict freedom of speech or religion; to suppress legitimate criticism and dissent; to help their preferred companies or industries; to provide domestic companies with an unfair competitive advantage; or to benefit or burden members of groups defined in terms of religion, ethnicity, race, and gender.”

The Washington Post notes that some on the inside who have experience with the NSA oppose the measures. Former NSA Inspector General Joel Brenner argued that they “would put us back before 9/11 again,” creating a very real threat to the American people. Edward Snowden’s adoptive premier Vladimir Putin called the NSA’s surveillance techniques “necessary” in the War on Terror and went so far as to admit that he envied them. 

The report spans hundreds of pages, and its recommendations are sometimes esoteric to read as a layman. However, five of the recommendations stand out of their sweeping scope, their directness as a response to the Snowden revelations, and their clear goal of preventing another Snowden figure from ever surfacing. Below, those five key changes recommended by the panel:

1. The NSA (and Federal Government) Should Not Collect and Keep Phone Records

The Review Board provides two recommendations on this topic: private communications agencies keep metadata records that the government may, on occasion, access, and that the government never keep these records. For the latter, they recommend legislation that bans agencies from keeping the information and restricts any program that allows it to being “narrowly tailored to serve an important government interest.”

2. The NSA Must Not Search or Wiretap Without Proper Legal Authority

This recommendation seeks to ban warrantless NSA snooping, especially with regard to domestic surveillance that might fall outside the scope of what FISA courts authorize. One recommendation targets the surveillance of domestic citizens tangentially related to something authorized by a FISA court, emphasizing that any such surveillance “must be authorized by duly enacted laws or properly authorized executive orders” and must be “exclusively” a national security issue. 

3. The Intelligence Community Must Develop New Protocol for Surveillance of World Leaders

The Snowden scandal caused an uproar that temporarily united countries as distinct as Brazil, Germany, and France in livid indignation over the violation of their national privacy. The advisory panel targets this diplomatic risk specifically with a set of questions that the intelligence powers that be should ask before monitoring another head of state:

(1) Is there a need to engage in such surveillance to assess significant threats to our national security? 

(2) Is the other nation one with which we share values and interests, with which we have a cooperative relationship, and whose leaders we should accord a high degree of respect and deference? 

(3) Is there a reason to believe the foreign leader is being duplicitous in dealing with senior US officials or is attempting to hide information relevant to national security concerns from the US? 

(4) Are there other collection means or collection targets that could reliably reveal the needed information?

(5) What would be the negative effects if the leader became aware of the US collection or if citizens of the relevant nation became aware?

4. The New Head of the NSA Should Be a Civilian

To give the American people a greater say in how their government preserves their security, the review board argues that the National Security Agency be held to the same standards of other such agencies and led by someone confirmed by the United States Senate. The recommendations not only suggest that civilians be eligible for the position, but that the president should “give serious consideration” to a civilian when the position reopens.

5. Improved Employee Vetting and Security Clearance (the Snowden Recommendations)

Buried in the list of recommendations meant to target shortcomings within the NSA itself are two recommendations that serve to protect the NSA from another Edward Snowden. One recommendation suggests that the system that gives employees security clearance “should be more highly differentiated,” with more levels of access to prevent as many people as possible from seeing certain information that should not fall into their hands, particularly “support and information technology personnel.” Another recommendation targets the vetting of employees before they are hired, suggesting only government employees or a non-profit contractor should conduct background checks.

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