US National Security Agency

US presidential advisory panel expected to urge curbs on NSA spying

Changes likely to include White House review of spying on foreign leaders; agencies set to resist

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 10:41pm

A presidential advisory committee examining the operations of the National Security Agency says a programme to collect data on every phone call made in the US should continue, but under new restraints to increase privacy protections.

The committee's report also argues in favour of codifying and publicly announcing the steps the United States will take to protect the privacy of foreign citizens whose phone records, internet communications or movements are collected by the NSA.

We’re not leaving it to [national security chief] Jim Clapper any more

But it is unclear how far that effort would go, and intelligence officials have argued strenuously that they should be under few restrictions when tapping the communications of non-Americans abroad.

The advisory group is also expected to recommend that senior White House officials, including the president, directly review the list of foreign leaders whose communications are routinely monitored by the NSA.

President Barack Obama has apologised to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for the NSA's monitoring of her calls over the past decade, and promised it had been halted and would not resume. But he refused to make the same promise to the leaders of Mexico and Brazil.

Administration officials say the White House has already taken over supervision of that programme.

"We're not leaving it to Jim Clapper any more," said one official, referring to the director of national intelligence, who appears to have been the highest official to regularly review the programmes.

But resistance from the intelligence agencies is likely. Two months ago, General Keith Alexander, the soon-to-retire director of the NSA and the commander of the military's Cyber Command, suggested a major cut in US spying on foreign nationals would be naive. And officials who have examined the NSA's programmes say they have been surprised at how infrequently the agency has been challenged to weigh the intelligence benefits of its foreign collection operations against the damage that could be done if the programmes were exposed.

One of the expected recommendations is that the White House conduct a regular review of those collection activities, the way covert action by the CIA is reviewed annually.

Another likely recommendation, officials say, is the creation of an organisation of legal advocates who, like public defenders, would argue against lawyers for the NSA and other government organisations in front of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The secret court oversees the collection of phone and internet metadata and wiretapping aimed at terrorism and espionage suspects. Obama has already hinted he objects to the absence of any adversarial procedures in front of its judges.

The advisory report offers the first signs that the revelations by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has leaked thousands of documents from the agency's archives, may lead to changes. Although Snowden has been widely condemned in Washington for violating his oaths to protect secrets, and for taking up asylum in Russia instead of facing prosecution, it now appears likely his disclosures will lead to the result he said he was seeking.

The five-member advisory group of intelligence and legal experts is expected to deliver its report this weekend.