December 27, 2013

Michael Morell is the former acting director and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a member of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

One of the dangers of a 304 -page report on a complex subject is that everyone gets to choose what he or she thinks is the bottom line. Many of those commenting on the report and recommendations of the recently completed Presidential Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies must have read a different report than the one I helped write.

As one of the five members of the panel, let me try to clear up some of the confusion and misperceptions. One such misperception is the extent of the changes called for in the report. Commentators have used the word “sweeping” to characterize the recommendations, arguing that they would “roll back” the capabilities of the intelligence community.

This is incorrect.

Take, for example, the Section 215 telephony metadata program. It gives the National Security Agency (NSA) the ability to hold the metadata of Americans’ phone calls and to search the database containing that information, under a broad court order, to determine whether terrorists overseas have connections to any individuals in the United States.

Several news outlets have reported that the review group had called for an end to the program, but we did not do that. We called for a change in approach rather than a wholesale rejection. To better protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans — key values of our republic — we recommended that the government no longer hold the data and that it be required to obtain an individual court order for each search. But make no mistake: The review group reaffirmed that the program should remain a tool of our government in the fight against terrorism.

Another misperception involved the review group’s view of the efficacy of the Section 215 program; many commentators said it found no value in the program. The report accurately said that the program has not been “essential to preventing attacks” since its creation. But that is not the same thing as saying the program is not important to national security, which is why we did not recommend its elimination.

Had the program been in place more than a decade ago, it would likely have prevented 9/11. And it has the potential to prevent the next 9/11. It needs to be successful only once to be invaluable. It also provides some confidence that overseas terrorist activity does not have a U.S. nexus. The metadata program did exactly that during my last days at the CIA this summer, in the midst of significant threat reports emanating from Yemen. By examining the metadata, we were able to determine that certain known terrorists were most likely not in phone contact with anyone in the United States during this specific period of concern.

Personally, I would expand the Section 215 program to include all telephone metadata (the program covers only a subset of the total calls made) as well as e-mail metadata (which is not in the program) to better protect the United States. This is a personal view; it is not something the review group opined on or even discussed. Such an expansion should, of course, fall under the same constraints recommended by the review group.

The idea that we can do a better job protecting privacy and civil liberties at no expense to national security is also incorrect. The review group believes there will be costs but that they will be manageable. This trade-off is at the crux of what President Obama needs to decide about whether and how to amend current programs.

Take the Section 215 program again. The review group’s recommendations will, if adopted by the president, slow the process of searching the metadata. No doubt about it. It will take time to prepare a justification for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for the court to render a decision and for the NSA to reach out to the private holder of the data. But the review panel believes this loss of flexibility is both manageable — we allow for exceptions in emergency situations, for example — and worth the protection of personal freedom it provides.

Finally, the argument that the review group is boxing in the president’s decision-making on this issue is flawed. In its transmittal letter to the president, the group noted that it did not have the time nor the expertise to think through all the implications of each recommendation, noting that the recommendations require further study before acceptance and implementation. That is not a box; it is a road map to an effective policy process.

The review group’s report, moreover, is part of a larger process. It is one of several views the president will receive on this important issue.

Obama has heard the views of information technology companies. He has heard our view. He will hear the view of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He will also be receiving the perspective of the intelligence community, which has concerns with a handful of the review group’s recommendations. It will be important for the president to consider all of these views closely, and I know he will.

The key job of an intelligence officer is to paint an accurate picture of a national security issue for the president so that he can make good decisions. Because countries often make the wrong choices when misperceptions and inaccuracies abound, it is critical for the president’s advisers to bring him clarity on the important intelligence policy issues now before him.