NSA Spying Review Panel Appointed by Obama Set to Whitewash Surveillance Abuses

A group of experts appointed to review the surveillance engaged in by the National Security Agency and other US intelligence agencies is working under the control Office of the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and is not focused on investigating surveillance abuses that former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden has exposed.

Revelations around top secret surveillance programs and the critical debate spurred was what drove President Barack Obama to appoint the review group in the first place. On August 9, he said in a press conference:

[W]e’re forming a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies. We need new thinking for a new era. We now have to unravel terrorist plots by finding a needle in the haystack of global telecommunications. And meanwhile, technology has given governments — including our own — unprecedented capability to monitor communications.

He also said, “They’ll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy — particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public. And they will provide an interim report in 60 days and a final report by the end of this year, so that we can move forward with a better understanding of how these programs impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy.”

Not only did the public get a “high-level group” of people who should not be considered “outside experts,” but the public got a group that has been conducting a review with a focus on “moving forward, not looking back,” the mantra of President Barack Obama for excusing abuses of executive power and one that expressly benefits those responsible for unchecked policies or programs.

The Associated Press reports on how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, run by James Clapper, has been overseeing the group. ODNI runs the NSA and “all other spy efforts” and is the last agency one would give control to a review of spying that was supposed to be conducted by an “outside group.”

The panel’s advisers work in offices on loan from the DNI. Interview requests and press statements from the review panel are carefully coordinated through the DNI’s press office. James Clapper, the intelligence director, exempted the panel from U.S. rules that require federal committees to conduct their business and their meetings in ways the public can observe. Its final report, when it’s issued, will be submitted for White House approval before the public can read it.

Yet, for weeks now, it has been obvious this review would be a whitewash designed as a reset—an opportunity to make it seem like the intelligence community had addressed concerns about policies or programs while at the same time moving onward with renewed confidence and less scrutiny from the press and public.

When Clapper formed the group, that was the first sign. Clapper should not have been the one forming the group.

Then, there was the statement put out announcing its formation:

The Review Group will assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the United States employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust.

It would be examining collection and surveillance capabilities. But no person criticizes the agency for its inability to collect and conduct surveillance. If anything, a review responsive to public criticism would assess whether the “national security” could be protected by utilizing surveillance capabilities to a far lesser extent.

Also, in that bureaucratic description of that group, there is no hint that Clapper is even remotely interested in helping the group investigate any alleged abuses by the intelligence community.

Then, there were the appointments. Michael Morell, Richard Clarke, Cass Sunstein, Peter Swire and Geoffrey Stone were appointed to be a part of this review group.

Each of these men had served in the Executive Branch at one time or another except for Stone. Stone and Swire were supposed to be “privacy advocates” in the group.

While Stone is apparently a member of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Stone wrote in July that Bush had violated the Fourth Amendment and Obama had not.

…Unlike the Obama program, which is limited to obtaining information about phone calls made and received from telephone companies, the Bush program authorized the government to wiretap private phone conversations. From a constitutional perspective, the difference is critical, and it is unfortunate that President Obama has not done a better job of explaining the distinction, and why his administration’s program does not violate the constitutional “right of privacy.”

Stone also aggressively debated against author Chris Hedges on “Democracy Now!” and has not hidden his disgust with Snowden’s decision to expose the true nature of unchecked NSA surveillance.

There is another review happening parallel to the one headed by Clapper. It is being overseen by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. But that review is not likely to carry the same weight as the one staffed with mostly former Executive Branch officials, who are conducting business in the offices of the agency which has been responsible for allowing the exposed surveillance abuses to take place.

In fact, the review group under Clapper is far more likely to produce an outcome favorable to an intelligence community of families and loved ones that feel they are wrongfully under siege by a press intent on viciously attacking their patriotism than anything remotely useful to bringing oversight to the country’s massive surveillance apparatus. 

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