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NSA review panel members to appear before Senate committee in January
The five members of the White House review panel on data surveillance by the National Security Agency will appear before the Senate judiciary committee in January as pressure builds on the Obama administration to rein in the activities of its spying branch.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Patrick Leahy, announced on Sunday that a special session would be convened on 14 January to discuss the 46 recommendations made by the handpicked panel last week. The hearing, the judiciary committee's first of the New Year, promises to put data surveillance at the top of the political agenda when Congress returns to work in 2014.
Leahy said in a statement: "The recommendations from the President's Review Group make clear that it is time to recalibrate our government's surveillance programs. Momentum is building for real reform."
The announcement suggests that political steam is intensifying for some concrete measure of reform of NSA activities, with most debate focusing around the agency's collection of billions of Americans' phone records, which the Guardian disclosed in June. Last week the practice was denounced by a federal judge who branded it unconstitutional and "almost Orwellian" in scope.
The review panel's 300-page report recommended that phone metadata, which the NSA currently collects, should in future be held at arm's length from the spying agency, with phone companies possibly retaining the records but with the NSA able to access it in certain controlled circumstances. The panel's findings underlined the need for changes to the existing system, though its proposed reforms fell short of some campaigners' wishes.
Two of the five members of the panel appeared on Sunday TV talk shows, giving notably different read-outs of their collective work. Richard Clarke, a former US cybersecurity official, told ABC's This Week that "we think the so-called metadata telephony programme has not been essential, has not contributed significantly to prevention of terrorist attacks at home and abroad."
He added that the panel was critical of current arrangements whereby the NSA could spy on foreign leaders, even of allied countries such as Germany, and not have to seek senior-level approval in advance. "Most of the time there's absolutely no reason to engage in wiretapping of our friends," he said.
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, put a much more NSA-friendly spin on the review panel's findings on CBS's Face the Nation. "I think one of the misperceptions out there at the moment is that the review group did not see value in this programme," Morell said, referring to the mass collection of phone records.
However, he went on, the data remained important in the fight against terrorism. "It's important for the government to continue to be able to query this data."
Morell said that there "is a view that the NSA was out there on its own doing all these things. Not the case. The agency was doing exactly what the government asked it to do. There was no abuse here."
The January hearing of the senate judiciary committee will keep the issue of NSA reform on President Obama's desk. At a press conference on Friday he gave no firm details of any moves he intended to initiate, but he did indicate that he might be open to the idea of phone records being held by private companies rather than by the NSA directly.
Whatever specific policy proposals emerge from the White House in the New Year, there is certain to be political discord before any real changes are made. The Republican chair of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, made it clear on ABC's This Week that there was considerable conservative opposition to anything that would reduce the NSA's surveillance activities.
He derided Obama's handpicked review panel, scoffing that it was "dominated by law professors". He also disputed the idea that by transferring phone data from the NSA to the private phone companies, privacy would be safeguarded.
"I'm reluctant, because it opens it up to more privacy violations when the companies hold it. They don't have somebody directly controlling the information, that's not their job," Rogers said.
[Source: By Ed Pilkington in New York, The Guardian, London, 22Dec13]
Privacy and counterintelligence
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