NSA changes recommended by Obama’s review group could politicize spy agency

The president’s hand-picked intelligence review panel has submitted a list of recommendations that would politicize the leadership and the routine operations of the nation’s leading military intelligence agency.

The 46 recommendations urge the federal government to treat foreign enemies as courtroom-protected citizens, and would require the soldiers working at the National Security Agency to negotiate day-to-day decisions with an array of private-sector lawyers.

President Barack Obama met Wednesday with his five appointees on the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, whose report was released late Wednesday afternoon.

Obama is expected to announce his preferred policies next month, but indicated his supported for much of the report. “The president noted that the group’s report represented a consensus view” of his five carefully selected advisors,” said an afternoon statement.

In his meeting with appointees, “the president again stated his expectation that, in light of new technologies, the United States use its intelligence collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security while supporting our foreign policy, respecting privacy and civil liberties, maintaining the public trust, and reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure.”

Controversy over the surveillance erupted after the release of many secret documents by a former contract employee, Edward Snowden. The controversy  impacts the NSA’s ability to collect intelligence, but has also undermined Obama’s political support among progressives, civil libertarians and younger voters, and among executives and donors in the information-technology industry.

The agency provides a huge stream of accurate, current and valuable information to policymakers, legislators, generals and battlefield commanders, top officials say. The provided information details foreign weapons, terror plots, Russian and Chinese hacking operations, political payoffs, troop movements, secret plans and the location of potential targets, financial assets and criminal profits.

If Obama does implement the new recommendations, he’ll tangle the NSA’s routine intelligence operations in many slow and expensive legal hearings that will reduce the scope and agility of U.S. intelligence collection efforts.

Some of the recommendations urge legislative changes, but the president — who is the commander in chief — can impose many of the proposed changes on the military agency without approval from Congress.

Obama’s appointees urged that future directors of the National Security Agency be approved by the Senate, and that future appointees should be civilians. But a switch to civilian appointees would ensure that trusted political allies of the president are assigned to run the nation’s primary intelligence agency, perhaps after a 51-vote majority vote in the Senate. Obama, however, has said he plans to appoint a general when the incumbent general retires.

The appointees said the NSA should be barred from storing so-called “metadata,” which shows which devices are communicating with each other via the phone networks and the Internet. Instead, the panel urged that the NSA request the metadata from another government agency, or from communications companies, such as Google or AT&T, after each request is reviewed by judges. If the data is held by companies, the recommendation would require those companies to store and share private data, even if they do not want to keep the data. To avoid the legal requirement, the companies could move their headquarters and their data offshore, or store it in a peculiar format that makes it difficult to use.

The appointees said that NSA’s requests for information from companies should be made public after six months. If implemented, the rule would create an incentive for companies to hire lawyers to fight any information-sharing with the NSA.