A group tasked with proposing NSA reforms will reportedly recommend limiting the agency's bulk phone-record collection program, splitting off US Cyber Command, and installing civilian leadership, sources have told The Wall Street Journal. The panel, formed earlier this year, isn't due to present a report to the White House until December 15th, but according to people who have reviewed the documents, it's taking aim at one of the most high-profile issues: the mass collection of phone metadata allowed under the FISA Amendments Act and Patriot Act. Under the suggested rules, the NSA would have to meet a higher burden of proof before collecting records — instead of being held in a government database, they would stay in the hands of the phone companies or other third parties.
That doesn't necessarily mean the NSA will be querying less data, since it can simply ask phone companies to provide information about the numbers. It also isn't clear whether the panel is planning reform of how the agency collects internet metadata records, emails, location data, or anything else captured by its substantial online surveillance system. But it will take the phone records of millions of Americans not suspected of any terrorist activity out of the intelligence community's hands. A pair of bills from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) already propose to end bulk phone-record collection by rewriting the rule that allows it, requiring records to be both relevant to a national security investigation and related to a foreign power or a suspected American agent of that power. The Journal's sources have said that the panel's suggestion "aligns very closely" with the bills. The NSA has defended its database by warning that investigations could be hampered by the delay of asking phone companies for records.
The head of the NSA would no longer lead US Cyber Command
More proposals would silo individual intelligence operations. The panel has apparently recommended splitting off the Information Assurance Directorate, the segment of the NSA responsible for developing and testing security systems. Since leaks have revealed extensive NSA efforts to crack and weaken encryption protocols in other departments, the proposal is aimed at reducing the conflict of interest between the two projects and showing that the directorate is operating in good faith, not as part of a larger code-cracking effort.
Likewise, the panel has reportedly taken a side in the ongoing debate over whether the head of the NSA should also be the head of US Cyber Command. Both positions are currently held by Keith Alexander, but under these recommendations, his successor at the NSA would be a civilian and command of the military's cyberwarfare units would be placed elsewhere as a check on the NSA's power. This change may already have been in the cards, but the panel's support of it could bolster sympathy. Overall, it's too early to assume that these suggestions will be taken up, but they echo promises made by President Obama in August, as well as proposals from Congress and the public. Unfortunately, we might not actually get to read the suggestions once they're officially submitted on Sunday. The report has gone through a declassification review, but it's not yet known whether the White House considers it safe for wider release.