WASHINGTON -- A panel appointed by President Barack Obama to review the government's surveillance activities has recommended significant new limits on the nation's intelligence apparatus that include ending the National Security Agency's collection of virtually all Americans' phone records.
It urged that phone companies or a private third party maintain the data instead, with access granted only by a court order.
The President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies also recommended in a wide-ranging report issued Wednesday that decisions to spy on foreign leaders be subjected to greater scrutiny, including weighing the diplomatic and economic fallout if operations are revealed. Allied foreign leaders or those with whom the United States shares a cooperative relationship should be accorded "a high degree of respect and deference," it said.
The panel also urged legislation that would require judicial approval before the FBI could use a national security letter or administrative subpoena to obtain Americans' financial, phone and other records. That would void one of the tool's main attractions, that it can be used quickly without court approval.
The group also would ban NSA searches without a warrant for Americans' phone calls and emails held within large caches of communications collected legally because the program targeted foreigners overseas.
Taken together, the five-member panel's recommendations take aim at some of the most controversial practices of the intelligence community, in particular the 35,000-employee NSA, headquartered at Fort Meade, Md. The intelligence agency has been in the news constantly since June, when reports based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began appearing in The Washington Post and The Guardian, a British newspaper.
The White House released the 308-page report as part of a larger effort to restore public confidence in the intelligence community, which has been shaken by the Snowden revelations.
The panel said NSA storage of phone data "creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty," and that as a general rule, "the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information" about Americans to be mined for foreign intelligence purposes.
Despite the proposed constraints, panelist Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, said, "We are not in any way recommending the disarming of the intelligence community."
The panel made 46 recommendations in all, which included moving the NSA's information assurance directorate -- its computer defense arm -- outside the agency and under the Defense Department's cyber-policy office.
"The review committee has reaffirmed that national security neither requires nor permits the government to help itself to Americans' personal information at will," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program. "The recommendations would extend significant privacy protections to Americans."
Some intelligence professionals were dismayed. "If adopted in bulk, the panel's recommendations would put us back before 9/11 again," former NSA inspector general Joel Brenner said.
Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden urged senior intelligence officials to lay out the operational costs of adopting the recommendations. "The responsibility is now in the intelligence community to be ruthlessly candid with the policy leadership," he said.
Mr. Obama met Wednesday morning with the panel, whose suggestions are advisory only. Some intelligence officials predicted that the most far-reaching recommendations, including ending NSA collection and storage of bulk phone data, would not be adopted. The White House has said it will announce in January which ideas it has embraced, as it concludes its internal review of surveillance activities.
The NSA phone-records program has prompted debate about whether the government has overreached in its effort to prevent terrorist attacks. The review panel is urging that Congress pass legislation to end NSA storage of phone records -- estimated by some former officials to number more than 1 trillion -- "as soon as reasonably practicable."
If the data were held by phone companies or a private third party, access would be permitted only with a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order, based on reasonable suspicion that the information sought is relevant to an authorized terrorism investigation. Each phone number would require a court order. The NSA currently holds for five years the phone records it gathers daily from U.S. phone companies. These "metadata" include the numbers dialed and call times and durations, but not call content or subscriber names.
The review panel is not recommending that phone companies maintaining the data store it any longer than they do now -- periods that vary from as little as six months to 10 years.
In a ruling Monday on the collection program, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon described the technology used to search the NSA database as "almost Orwellian." The judge said the collection was "almost certainly" unconstitutional.
Moving the records' custodianship outside the NSA would diminish its agility to detect terrorist plots, supporters of the current arrangement say, because companies hold data for varying periods and in different formats.