WASHINGTON – A review panel handed President Barack Obama a report on surveillance by US spy agencies Friday in the wake of explosive revelations on US phone and Internet sweeps by fugitive Edward Snowden.
The report contains more than 40 recommendations the White House will consider, and Obama will make a speech after a full scale administration internal review of US eavesdropping activity concludes in January, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
The report is said to recommend a continuation of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs, which have alarmed US allies and civil liberties groups, but with some new privacy safeguards included.
The White House will study the work of the five-man panel and decide which recommendations to adopt, which require further study and which will not be taken up, Hayden said.
The report looks at how, following technological advances, Washington can use its intelligence capability to guard national security while maintaining public trust.
Obama said last week that he would introduce some restraints on the NSA following the review.
A flurry of intelligence leaks from Snowden, who is living in temporary asylum in Russia, lifted the lid on a vast global spying network.
Tens of thousands of documents leaked by Snowden to The Guardian newspaper and other media outlets have detailed the vast scope of the NSA’s shadowy activities.
Snowden’s revelations made it clear that metadata and information from millions of emails and phone calls, some of it about American citizens, has been systematically raked in by the NSA.
The New York Times reported that the review panel would recommend making public the privacy protections foreign citizens can expect when their telephone or Internet records are gathered by the NSA.
Separately, a US official said the White House had also decided to maintain the “dual-hatted” arrangement that sees a single military officer head the NSA eavesdropping service and US cyberwarfare operations.
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, said the task force would recommend that records of phone calls held by the NSA after the massive data mining operations should be held by telephone companies and not the spy agency.
The Times reported that the review panel would recommend that top White House officials directly examine the list of foreign leaders whose communications are monitored by the NSA.
The protection will be introduced in the wake of a furor over revelations that US spies eavesdropped on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the communications of some other world leaders.
The Times also said that the White House review would create a corps of lawyers who would argue against NSA attorneys over espionage operations in the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
White House officials declined to comment on the reports.
Some critics of the “dual-hatted” system of leadership for the NSA and the military’s cyberwarfare command had argued the arrangement puts too much power in the hands of one person.
But Hayden said that after an interagency review, the administration decided that keeping the positions of NSA director and Cyber Command commander together as one was the most effective way to run both agencies.
“NSA plays a unique role in supporting Cyber Command’s mission, providing critical support for target access and development, including linguists, analysts, cryptanalytic capabilities and sophisticated technological infrastructure,” Hayden said.
In practice, the decision means that the NSA will continue to be headed by a military officer — as the head of Cyber Command will of necessity be a senior member of the armed services.
The current head of the two agencies, four-star General Keith Alexander, retires early next year.
Civil rights groups have decried the NSA’s activities as the actions of a Big Brother-like government, trampling on the rights of individuals with little oversight.
The American Civil Liberties Union said that “nothing short of stopping the mass, suspicionless surveillance of Americans is acceptable.”
The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute said the reports indicated some reforms were in the pipeline but expressed disappointment at the expected wider findings for the panel.
“Mandating that phone companies or a third party retain years’ worth of phone data just in case the government wants to look at it is not an ‘overhaul’ of or an ‘end’ to the NSA’s bulk collection program, as some reports have described it,” said OTI Policy Director Kevin Bankston.