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Presidential task force said to recommend overhaul of NSA

Nonbinding suggestions propose sweeping changes at the agency, including shifting its leadership from the military to civilians, sources tell the Wall Street Journal.

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The National Security Agency could undergo sweeping changes if recommendations expected to be made by a presidential task force are adopted.

The panel's draft proposal recommends shifting the surveillance agency's leadership from military to civilian and limiting how the agency gathers and stores electronic information of US citizens, people familiar with the recommendations tell The Wall Street Journal. Among the reported recommendations are proposals that phone records collected by the NSA be held by phone companies or third parties rather than the NSA and that there be stricter standards for allowing NSA data searches.

Despite finding that the NSA surveillance followed the law, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology is expected to deliver a report hundreds of pages long that recommends dozens of changes to the agency's structure, transparency, and internal security, the Journal's sources said. The panel, which was appointed by President Obama in the wake of disclosures made this summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, is expected to deliver its recommendations by Sunday.

While the panel's recommendations are not binding and could change before they are formally submitted, the White House has said it will consider the task force's recommendations in its own review of the agency's surveillance practices. However, the Obama administration has not indicated when it will release the panel's report.

CNET has contacted the NSA for comment and will update this report when we learn more.

If adopted, the panel's reported suggestions could effectively end the agency's bulk phone records collection program, which some US senators say is unnecessary to national security. In an amicus brief filed last month as part of a lawsuit that claims the NSA data collection practices are unconstitutional, Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) suggested that the information gathered by the agency's bulk collection program could have been obtained through less-intrusive ways.

Legislation limiting the NSA's bulk collection of the records of US citizens is also under consideration in the US Senate. Introduced in September, the bipartisan Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act seeks to amend certain sections of the Foreign Intelligence Services Act (FISA), which the NSA has used to justify its data gathering. In addition to prohibiting the bulk collection of phone and e-mail records, the bill would close a loophole for "back door searches," which allow the government to access the records of American citizens without a warrant.

Revelations of the panel's expected recommendations come less than a week after technology's most powerful tech companies called on President Obama and Congress to set limits on government surveillance efforts. Eight companies, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, urged adoption of reforms to government surveillance that are transparent, clearly defined by law, and subject to independent oversight.