The NSA

Obama Puts Spies in Charge of Investigating Spies


President Barack Obama walks down the West Wing Colonnade alongside James Clapper on June 5, 2010

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama walks down the West Wing Colonnade alongside James Clapper on June 5, 2010

A majority of Americans now consider Edward Snowden to be a whistle-blower, not a traitor. And numerous members of Congress want more checks and balances on the National Security Agency’s spying programs that Snowden exposed. Before Congress’s summer vacation began last week, Justin Amash, a Republican representative from Michigan, got more traction than expected for an amendment he sponsored that would have curbed the NSA’s ability to scoop up records in bulk.

All this adds up to a public-relations headache for President Obama. Which is why, during the press conference he held last week, Obama promised more scrutiny of U.S. intelligence. “It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” he said. “The American people need to have confidence in them, as well.” Among the reform proposals he floated was a panel of independent outsiders that could look at what the NSA is collecting, and how, and suggest changes to protect Americans’ civil liberties. On Monday, Obama followed through and ordered the formation of such a panel—but it’s not exactly what you’d call independent.

The Review Group on Intelligence Communications and Technologies (RGOICAT?) will be headed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, aka the official who currently oversees the spying in question. And it’s not yet clear whether the board will have any real government outsiders on it, or if they’ll all be insiders. In a memo yesterday, Clapper said he’ll be assembling the panel.

Also, per the president’s memo, the panel’s first priority appears to be making sure that federal programs guarantee the country’s national security (which, presumably they already do), rather than ensuring the NSA isn’t abusing its power. Obama wrote:

“The Review Group will assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the U.S. 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.”

Under Clapper’s direction, the board is supposed to issue its first set of findings within 60 days—to the president. Meanwhile, the truly independent privacy and civil liberties board the U.S. has already set up to keep watch over spying programs continues to be ignored.

Hinman is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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