In mid-December, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies released its findings to great fanfare. The panel, established to evaluate government surveillance activities, joined a growing chorus of critics of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to intelligence. Yet the group’s report is seriously flawed. It reflects a misunderstanding of the function of foreign intelligence activities and offers some recommendations that are likely to harm these activities, while also doing little to nothing to protect individual rights.
The review group’s report calls for an end to bulk collection of metadata — information about when one person called another, but not the content of their conversation — as well as new steps to protect Americans against what panelists fear is unjustified government surveillance. The panelists recognize the tricky tradeoff between better intelligence and civil liberties, especially in an era of rapid technological change. Yet the unmistakable theme in their report is that policymakers and intelligence officials have gone too far in the direction of security. Now is the time to put the brakes on programs the panel believes create “risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty.”
The report also calls for more stringent criteria about when the NSA can intercept the communications of foreign individuals. This recommendation is a response to news that the NSA listened in on cell-phone conversations of world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Policymakers and intelligence officials, we are told, should be much more careful about whom they target and how much they data collect.
Already, the report has prompted criticism from those who see it as threatening the capabilities of the intelligence community. One of the report’s authors, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, has recently attempted to rebut this criticism. He notes in a Dec. 27 Washington Post op-ed that the report does not say the NSA’s collection of metadata “is not important to national security, which is why we did not recommend its elimination.”