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Jettison NSA phone database, panel tells Obama

Ending the NSA's massive phone database is just one recommendation in a report from the White House's surveillance review panel.

National Security Agency buildings.

A report from the White House surveillance review board released Wednesday recommends the US National Security Agency end its bulk collection of Americans' phone records and be subjected to more rigorous scrutiny before any operation to spy on foreign leaders.

Those are just two of the key points of the 46 recommendations detailed in the more than 300-page report (PDF) from the five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

The report recommends that phone data remain with phone companies or third parties, and that the NSA obtain a court order for queries and datamining of those records. Previous reports have suggested this would effectively end the NSA's controversial bulk collection of data because the agency would have to meet a higher standard of proof to get information from phone companies. NSA officials have said this would hamper their speed and effectiveness because it would require searching multiple, separate databases.

The group also recommended that President Barack Obama create a new process for "requiring high-level approval of all sensitive intelligence requirements," including surveillance on foreign leaders and in foreign nations." The report said risks of spying on public leaders -- like the backlash if caught -- as well as the US' relationship with individual leaders and countries should be carefully considered.

While the panel said it did not find evidence to support reports that the US government intentionally introduced "backdoors" to encryption software, it recommended that the US government make it clear that the NSA will not undermine global encryption standards or demand changes to any products and services to make it easier for the agency to collect user data.

The review panel also recommended that the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate -- its arm for strengthening computer security to protect US systems -- become a separate agency within the Department of Defense. The idea is to eliminate conflicts of interest that could arise when the NSA finds "some way into a communications device, software system, or network, [and] they may be reluctant to have a patch that blocks their own access."

Taken as a whole, the recommendations would limit the NSA's authority to conduct many of its operations without authority or review from the president, Congress, or the courts.

The panel, which was appointed by Obama in the wake of disclosures made this summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, submitted the recommendations to the president on Friday. They were released to the public Wednesday after Obama met with the panel to discuss the recommendations.

It's unclear at the moment how many of the recommendations will be enacted -- some require only the president's approval while others would need legislation from Congress. None of the recommendations are binding, and the president has already rejected the group's recommendation to split the role of head of the NSA and US Cyber Command.

"The president will work with his national security team to study the Review Group's report, and to determine which recommendations we should implement," the White House said in a statement. "The president will also continue consulting with Congress as reform proposals are considered in each chamber."

The White House had originally intended to release the report in January along with the president's decisions on how to respond. However, after Obama met with the members of the panel earlier Wednesday, it was announced that the report would be released early.

"While we had intended to release the review group's full report in January, given inaccurate and incomplete reports in the press about the report's content, we felt that it was important to let people see the full report to draw their own conclusions," said press secretary Jay Carney, according to The Hill.

The NSA issue heated up considerably this week, possibly pushing the White House to release the report today. Just Monday, a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling that the NSA's bulk collection of US citizens' phone records could violate the Fourth Amendment. US District Judge Richard Leon found that the NSA program "certainly does violate a reasonable expectation of privacy" and even called the government's technology for collecting and storing data "almost-Orwellian."

Tech executives -- including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and others -- also visited Obama this week and urged him to "move aggressively" on NSA reforms.

The review board's recommendations drew mixed reviews from groups advocating for reform of NSA surveillance practices.

"The review board floats a number of interesting reform proposals, and we're especially happy to see them condemn the NSA's attacks on encryption and other security systems people rely upon," Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement. "But we're disappointed that the recommendations suggest a path to continue untargeted spying. Mass surveillance is still heinous, even if private company servers are holding the data instead of government data centers."

The American Civil Liberties Union also urged Obama to accept the panel's recommendations and called NSA surveillance programs "un-American" and "unconstitutional."

Updates, at 1:36 p.m. and 2:11 p.m. PT: This story has been updated with information from the surveillance recommendations released by the White House.

Update, 3:12 p.m. PT: Adds statements from ACLU and EFF.