How One Panel’s Suggested Reforms Plan To Change The NSA


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A task force charged with suggesting reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA) has submit its recommendations to the White House, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, setting the stage for a renewed push from Congress to alter the way the spy agency functions.

Following this summer’s revelations about the NSA and its activities both in the United States and around the world, the Obama administration has been playing defense in managing public opinion and Congressional outrage. As part of that defense strategy, the administration launched the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, designed to provide recommendations on how to reform the NSA. While the panel’s recommendations are non-binding, they will be taken into account as the debate over just how to reign in the NSA shifts back into gear. Here are a few of the suggestions they put forward:

Put a Civilian in Charge

At present, the NSA is run under the Department of Defense, with a military officer at the head of the body. Four-star general Keith Alexander has held that role for nearly a decade at this point, along with also serving as the head of the United States Cyber Command since 2009. Under the recommendations from the review group, the military would no longer run the show at Fort Meade, placing a civilian in charge of the leviathan-sized agency. Such a shift would keep Alexander and his successors from dual-hatting between the two roles cyber-related roles that the general currently holds.

The change would mirror recommendations from cybersecurity experts, who have said in the past that the consolidation of cyber-policy making in one person’s hands was too great. The White House has already said, however, that it plans on keeping CYBERCOM and the NSA under the same leadership for the foreseeable future. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told Politico on Friday that the current arrangement “is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies’ missions.”

Store Metadata With a Third-Party

One of the most shocking revelations to come from the treasure trove of documents former NSA contractor Edward Snowden absconded with related to the degree to which the NSA collects so-called metadata from telecommunications companies. At present, the NSA is authorized under the PATRIOT Act to gather records from businesses including details of which number any given cell phone number has called and how long the call lasted, though the actual contents of the call still requires a wiretap.

The NSA has insisted that it takes extreme measures to protect privacy when querying this pool of data, but activists and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court alike have still balked at the way that the agency has swept up and stored information on Americans whether an investigation was ongoing or not. Given the sensitivities related to the metadata, the panel recommends that the information either remain at the telephone companies that had previously been legally compelled to hand it over to the NSA or with a third-party. The NSA would then face a much higher standard of proof before being able to collect this data. Deputy NSA Director John Inglis endorsed such an approach in theory when he appeared before Congress in July, saying that while it would require a legislative change it would not be difficult to implement.

Split Code-makers From Everyone Else

As Matt Damon’s character ably deconstructed in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” before the NSA became tied in the public’s mind with its surveillence abilities, it was best known for the vast stable of mathematicians housed in its Maryland headquarters. The NSA has been described as home to the largest number of mathematicians in the United States, and perhaps the planet, though the exact number in its employ remains classified. Under the proposals of the panel, the NSA would split the Information Assurance Directorate, which creates electronic security codes, from the rest of the agency which is designed to break such codes.

President Obama in August addressed the NSA controversy, pledging greater openness from his administration related to its intelligence gathering activities. “We have significant capabilities but we also show a restraint that governments around the world refuse to show,” Obama said at the time, later adding, “I am comfortable that the current program is not being abused.” He also indicated that the White House would work closely with Congress to pass changes to the current structure of the NSA. That promise will be tested now that the panel has made its recommendations, given that many of them align with a proposed bill from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) — one of the original authors of the PATRIOT Act — and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The two are currently in a struggle with the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who propose less drastic changes to the functioning of the NSA in legislation coming from their committee rooms.