Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Panels appointed in response to government scandals rarely produce anything revelatory or interesting, much less readable. The panel that President Barack Obama appointed to look into reforming the National Security Agency came up with something different: a critical and specific document that seriously questions some of the basic premises of the NSA’s expanded global mission since Sept. 11.
Some of the panel’s recommendations make sense. Some do not. But the overwhelming message is clear: The days of the NSA doing anything it pleases -- in secret and largely free from public criticism -- are coming to an end.
The report offers 46 recommendations of varying worth and plausibility. Its proposal to strengthen the technical expertise of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and to include a public-interest advocate in its proceedings, is a smart one. The panel’s call for the agency to store the phone metadata it collects with telephone companies or a third party could provide an important firewall. And the report rightly acknowledges that the decision to monitor communications of foreign leaders is an inherently political one that should be made by the White House.
Other suggestions -- such as beefing up the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board -- are well-meaning but will probably prove ineffectual. And some suggestions are unwise: For instance, the panel discourages the NSA from collecting information on “zero-day exploits,” or unpublished vulnerabilities in computer code. That could unnecessarily impair intelligence gathering, particularly when potential adversaries face no such restrictions.
All these proposals will now head into the maw of Washington politics. So it’s hard to say what will remain in the end. One message that should endure, however, is that intelligence collection comes at a cost. And in the age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, that cost -- in moral authority, public confidence and dollars -- is only going to get higher.
When the NSA’s actions were disclosed to the public, poll after poll found a deepening unease. When they were debated in open court, a federal judge found them troubling and probably unconstitutional. And when the economic costs to U.S. technology companies are tallied up, they’re disturbingly high.
The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies (whose five members include Cass Sunstein, a Bloomberg View columnist) may succeed only in forcing the NSA to recognize those costs and incorporate them into its decision-making in a more systematic and skeptical way. If so, it will still have performed a valuable service.
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