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WASHINGTON (AP) — A presidential advisory panel has recommended sweeping changes to government surveillance programs, including limiting the bulk collection of Americans' phone records by stripping the National Security Agency of its ability to store that data in its own facilities. Court orders would be required before the information could be searched.

In a 300-page report released Wednesday, the five-member panel also proposed greater scrutiny of decisions to spy on friendly foreign leaders, a practice that has outraged U.S. allies around the world.

While the panel's 46 recommendations broadly call for more oversight of the government's vast spying network, few programs would be ended. There's also no guarantee that the most stringent recommendations will be adopted by President Barack Obama, who authorized the panel but is not obligated to implement its findings.

The task force said it sought to balance the nation's security with the public's privacy rights and insisted the country would not be put at risk if more oversight was put in place. In fact, the report concludes that telephone information collected in bulk by the NSA and used in terror investigations "was not essential to preventing attacks."

"We're not saying the struggle against terrorism is over or that we can dismantle the mechanisms that we have put in place to safeguard the country," said Richard Clarke, a task force member and former government counterterrorism official. "What we are saying is those mechanisms can be more transparent."

The review group was set up as part of the White House response to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the scope of the government surveillance programs. Snowden is now a fugitive from U.S. authorities and was granted temporary asylum by Russia. The White House is conducting its own intelligence review, and Obama is expected to announce his decisions in January.

The White House had planned to release the panel's report next month, but officials said they decided to make it public now to avoid inaccurate reporting about its content. It coincided with increased political pressure on Obama following a blistering ruling Monday from a federal judge who declared the NSA's vast phone data collection likely was unconstitutional.

The judge, Richard Leon, called the NSA's operation "Orwellian" in scale and said there was little evidence that its gargantuan inventory of phone records from American users had prevented a terrorist attack. However, he stopped his ruling from taking effect, pending a likely government appeal.

The panel's most sweeping proposal would terminate the NSA's ability to store the telephone data and instead require it to be held by the phone companies or a third party. Access to the data would then be permitted only through an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"With regard to the bulk metadata of phone calls, we think there should be judicial review before that information is accessed, and we don't think the government should retain it," Clarke said.

If both recommendations were enacted, it's likely they would slow down the intelligence collection process. The panel's recommendations do allow for exceptions "in emergencies," leaving open the possibility of intelligence agencies scanning the information quickly and asking for permission later if they suspect imminent attack.

The task force did not say how long the phone companies would be required to hold the private data. The phone companies' retention policies vary markedly, according to information recently provided to the Senate Commerce Committee, ranging from one year at Verizon and US Cellular to five years at AT&T and seven to 10 years at T-Mobile.

Representatives of AT&T and Verizon declined to comment on the report and its recommendations. T-Mobile said it would look closely at the proposals. Spokesmen for US Cellular didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another major shift recommended by the task force would tighten federal law enforcement's use of so-called national security letters, which give the government sweeping authority to demand financial and phone records without prior court approval in national security cases. The task force recommended that authorities should be required to obtain a prior "judicial finding" showing "reasonable grounds" that the information sought was relevant to terrorism or other intelligence activities.

The panel also tackled the diplomatic furor over NSA spying on the leaders of allied nations, including Germany. The group recommended that such spying be approved by the highest levels of government and that the decisions be based in part on whether the United States shares "fundamental values and interests" with the leaders of those nations.

The U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday unanimously adopted a resolution aimed at protecting the right to privacy against unlawful surveillance. Germany and Brazil introduced the resolution, which is legally nonbinding, following a series of reports of U.S. eavesdropping abroad, including on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The report was issued a day after a group of top executives from leading technology companies met with Obama at the White House to discuss NSA surveillance and other issues. Several of the companies, including Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Twitter and Microsoft, have joined to urge Obama to curb the surveillance programs.

In a joint statement Wednesday, the companies praised the "thoughtful and transparent" approach taken by the White House panel in the report. "We look forward to a continued dialogue with the White House as we advocate for meaningful reform of government surveillance practices," they said.

In a nod to critics' complaints that government lawyers had no opposition in secret hearings about NSA programs before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the presidential advisory panel urged the creation of a "public interest advocate" to represent civil liberties and privacy interests before the court. The task force did not detail how the advocate would work, but Obama administration officials already have signaled their interest in the idea.

Snowden's disclosures have angered an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Following the release of the report, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said: "The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who has proposed legislation to shift control of telephone records from the NSA to the phone companies, said the new report was "impressive" and likely will carry a lot of weight for policymakers and Congress. The recommendation regarding custody of phone records by the companies "should put to rest that there's a technological problem" with allowing the companies to hold them, he said in an interview.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which has challenged the NSA's surveillance programs in federal court, said Monday's court ruling against the government and now the task force's proposals would "put wind in the sails" of efforts in Congress to scale back the secret operations.

While the White House said Obama was reviewing the full report, he already had decided to pass over one of the panel's recommendations. Last week, officials said the president would continue to allow the NSA director to also oversee the military's cyberwarfare command, ensuring that a military official run the spy agency. The panel recommended that oversight for the units be split, allowing a civilian to head the NSA.

___

Associated Press writers Stephen Braun, Jim Kuhnhenn and Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Up to half the terror suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison.

The deal would lift the most rigid restrictions Congress previously imposed on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a broad compromise defense bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week. The House approved the measure last Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the compromise could have a dramatic impact on the 160 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"About half of the detainees would be detainees that could be transferred to their third-world countries from which they come," Levin told reporters. "About half of the detainees would remain in Guantanamo because of the prohibition on transferring them to the United States for detention and for trial."

The defense bill marks the first time since Obama came to office promising to close Guantanamo that Congress is moving to ease restrictions instead of strengthen them. And it could signal changing political views toward the prison for terrorism suspects now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down.

Obama's achievement was somewhat of a surprise, after the Republican-controlled House earlier this year voted overwhelmingly to make it harder to transfer detainees. But the deal to move in the opposite direction passed with hardly any opposition and little attention — perhaps overshadowed by more prominent defense bill debates over Iran sanctions, military sexual assaults and spying by the National Security Agency.

But even with the deal, Obama still faces big obstacles to closing Guantanamo. Congress has effectively blocked him from doing so for his first five years in office, and he faces declining clout in his final three. Yet the president seems determined as part of his legacy to push for closure of the prison he argues never should have been opened and "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

Congressional proponents of keeping Guantanamo open say they felt they had to allow for transfers to other countries to maintain a more important priority — a ban on detainees from coming into the United States. The administration also pushed for the ability to transfer detainees to the U.S. for imprisonment, trial or medical emergencies but lost on that front, leaving Obama a thorny predicament of what to do with captives considered too dangerous to release.

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who worked on the compromise as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he'll continue to fight to keep Guantanamo open even as some colleagues are softening their position. "There's no place else you can house these terrorists," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, adding some former detainees have re-engaged in terrorist activity.

"I look at this and I wonder why people don't want it," Inhofe said. "But the president doesn't and he's going to keep trying (to close it). And this bill stops him from doing it."

Obama renewed his commitment to closure this spring when detainees went on a hunger strike to protest indefinite confinement without charge, now going on for 12 years. Obama responded by vowing to make the case anew to Congress that the prison hurts the United States and appointing envoys at the State and Defense Departments to work toward closure.

"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama said. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

Top administration officials, including Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and State Department envoy Clifford Sloan, made a quiet yet effective lobbying push to convince members to ease restrictions. They pointed out the annual cost of operating Guantanamo has reached more than $2 million per prisoner while other terrorism suspects are kept in U.S prisons at a small fraction of the price.

Half of the detainees at Guantanamo were approved for transfer nearly four years ago, provided that the home country could provide security guarantees. But the Obama administration has argued that many approved transfers effectively have been blocked by restrictions imposed by Congress.

For instance, lawmakers have barred the administration from transferring any detainee without the Pentagon certifying that, among other requirements, the receiving country is not "facing a threat that is likely to substantially affect its ability to exercise control over the individual." Administration officials have said that's a bar too high in particular for Yemen, home to the world's most active al-Qaida branch and more than half the Guantanamo detainees.

The rules have prohibited transfers to countries where detainees who have been released previously have re-engaged in terrorism. That includes Kuwait, a key U.S. ally that has been lobbying for the return of its two remaining detainees and has built a still unused rehabilitation center to peacefully reintegrate them.

There's also been a prohibition on transferring detainees to countries that the United States has declared a state sponsor of terrorism. Guantanamo houses three Syrians who have been approved for transfer but would be barred from going home under the current rules. Sudan's government says its two remaining detainees were heading home Wednesday — one has completed a sentence after a conviction on terrorism charges and the other is so ill he's unlikely to pose a threat and was recently ordered released by a judge. Court ordered transfers are excluded from the congressional restrictions; otherwise the administration would not have been able to send even a debilitated prisoner home to certain countries.

The congressional deal lifts those restrictions and allows transfers for those detainees who have been approved when the administration determines the transfer is in the national security interests of the U.S.

Administration officials say they are working with foreign governments to negotiate terms of transfers so there won't be a big movement overnight.

"The president directed the administration to responsibly reduce the detainee population to the greatest extent possible, and we would welcome much needed flexibility in this area," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "But even in the absence of transfer restrictions, our longstanding policy is to transfer detainees only if the threat posed by the detainee can be sufficiently mitigated and when consistent with our humane treatment policy."

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WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate panel has approved a bill that would allow the U.S. to restore its full aid relationship with Egypt.
 
   Wider congressional support for the measure is unclear.
 
   The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's bill, passed Wednesday, softens the American ban on assistance to governments suffering coup d'etats. It allows the president to waive the restriction for up to a year on national security grounds.
 
   For Egypt specifically, President Barack Obama has a waiver option through September 2015.
 
   However, the bill requires the administration to make a coup determination within 30 days of a questionable government change. Obama's aides avoided such a decision after the Egyptian Army's July overthrow of the country's Islamist president, citing the risk to important military programs.
 
   The administration suspended much of the aid in October.
Read more...

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