WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration will continue the National Security Agency's surveillance programs and cyber command operations under the direction of a single military commander, the first move in advance of what published reports described Friday as limited changes proposed by a task force that deliberated for months in secrecy.
The administration had considered splitting oversight of the two sensitive national security programs amid revelations about its surveillance programs sweeping phone and Internet data inside the U.S. and around the world. But National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden said Friday the government believes that maintaining the oversight responsibilities together under one command is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies' missions.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's director, currently oversees both the agency's surveillance operations and the military's Cyber Command, which monitors and responds to computer intrusions and espionage. Alexander is expected to step down this spring. The administration's decision means he will be replaced by another senior military commander instead of a civilian director, as recommended by some national security experts.
The announcement comes days before a review group working under the Director of National Intelligence is expected to deliver, on Sunday, its findings on NSA surveillance to President Barack Obama. The DNI's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology held no public meetings and met several times with business and privacy groups out of the range of the media and public. DNI head James Clapper exempted the panel from standard federal requirements that it work transparently.
Although the task force has kept its recommendations secret, news organizations have sketched out proposals that would allow most of the NSA's surveillance programs to continue but change ownership of the government's large inventory of telephone records and restrict spying on allied nations. The Wall Street Journal reported that the panel proposed shifting control of sought-after phone records from the government to individual phone companies, while The New York Times said the panel urged the White House to hold a tighter leash on U.S. spying on foreign leaders.
The panel's recommendations come as skepticism over the NSA surveillance mounts in Congress and from technology companies and privacy groups. Worried that reports of foreign data intercepts could drive away international customers, lawyers for a consortium of tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo recently urged legal changes in Congress. Their move coincided with a bipartisan legislative push to scale back the surveillance programs.
One lawmaker said the review panel recommendations could aid plans to end the government's direct control over telephone data.
"I'd encourage the administration to move in the direction of phone companies retaining the data," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Ca., said Friday.
Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has offered legislation to shift control of phone records from the NSA to the phone companies and said the move could be made without diminishing national security. He noted that the firms already hold the same data that the government sweeps up and could quickly turn over that material to the NSA and law enforcement. NSA officials have warned that investigations could bog down if the government lost direct control over the records.
Other NSA critics have long urged the White House to split up the responsibilities of the NSA's director by separating the agency's surveillance and cyber command operations. Recent media revelations stemming from leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed the blurring effect of the agency's dual roles abroad, reporting that the NSA spied on foreign governments and companies alike, using its unique computer hacking abilities to tap into financial and corporate files and the private communications of allies as well as the calling and web patterns of suspected terrorists.
But Hayden said Friday that "without that dual-hat arrangement, elaborate procedures would have to be put in place to ensure that effective coordination continued and avoid creating duplicative capabilities in each organization."
The Journal reported that the review group recommended that a civilian head the NSA.
Several NSA critics noted that Friday's media reports on the impending report said little about the agency's surveillance programs targeting Internet data inside the U.S. and abroad. Obama and senior national security officials have justified those sweeps by saying they are primarily directed at terror suspects and foreign Internet users and rarely sift through U.S.-based web traffic.
"I worry that what we're going to end up getting is a report remarkably modest in what it proposes and doing little to restore global trust in the U.S.," said Sascha Meinrath, a privacy advocate who is director of the Open Technology Institute, a web freedom group.
Most of what the public has learned about the secret NSA programs is the result of news stories based on leaks provided by Snowden, now a fugitive from U.S. authorities living in Russia. Some information also came from the NSA's declassification of long-secret decisions by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance court. In those decisions, several judges bared internal abuses by NSA officials and ordered tighter oversight of the programs. The Times reported Friday that among the task force's draft proposals is the idea of creating a group of legal advocates who could argue against the government at the secret court. Obama has expressed interest in that idea.
Meinrath attended two private meetings with the review panel and is one of several privacy advocates who have criticized the task force's lack of public contacts and the insider nature of its White House appointees. The review group's members have extensive ties to both Obama and the intelligence and national security communities. They include Richard A. Clarke, a long-time national security official in the Clinton and Bush administrations; Michael Morell, a former senior CIA official; Cass Sunstein, Obama's former regulatory czar; Peter Swire, a privacy law expert who served in the Clinton administration and Geoffrey Stone, a former University of Chicago Law School dean who leads an academic committee looking to build Obama's presidential library in Chicago.
The review group is one of two government organizations that Obama directed to review NSA surveillance programs that are conducted under authorization of the U.S. Patriot Act and the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. The second group, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, is an independent board of experts appointed by Congress. The oversight board was in existence before Snowden's revelations, but was largely idle until Congress approved its full membership last summer.
The board is in the final weeks of preparing its NSA report and the group's chairman, David Medine, said he expected that a report will be issued to Congress, the White House and the public before the end of the year.
Julie Pace is the AP White House correspondent.