WASHINGTON -- After a public backlash to government spying, President Barack Obama called for an independent group to review the vast surveillance programs that allow the collections of phone and email records.
Now, weeks before the group’s first report is due, some lawmakers, technology organizations and civil liberties groups are concerned that the panel’s members are too close to the Obama administration and its mission too vague to provide a thorough scrubbing of the National Security Agency technologies that have guided intelligence gathering since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies works in the office of the director of national intelligence; reports to its director, James Clapper, who’s been accused of lying to Congress about the programs; and has ties to his current and former bosses, Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
“There is ample evidence now that we need an independent investigation of the impact of the NSA’s spying program on Americans’ constitutional rights and civil liberties,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who has advocated for NSA changes. “A task force appointed by the president, reporting to the DNI, certainly won’t inspire confidence and may simply rubber-stamp a program that is dangerously infringing on Americans’ privacy rights.”
Obama had repeatedly downplayed the scope of the surveillance programs after leaks of top-secret documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, but he eventually addressed the rising public criticism. Documents showed the NSA is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers as well as emails through nine companies including tech giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.
He announced he would form a “high-level group of outside experts” that “protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while respecting our commitment to privacy and civil liberties” in early August, when he unveiled a series of proposals designed to provide more oversight on the government’s ability to spy on Americans. He also declassified documents, created a website to release information and name an NSA civil liberties and privacy officer.
The members of the review group are Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council for Clinton who later worked for Republican President George W. Bush; Michael Morell, Obama’s former deputy CIA director; law professor Geoffrey Stone, who has raised money for Obama and spearheads a committee hoping to build Obama’s presidential library in Chicago; law professor Cass Sunstein, administrator of information and regulatory affairs for Obama; and Peter Swire, a former Office of Management and Budget privacy director for Clinton.
“At the end of the day, a task force led by Gen. Clapper full of insiders – and not directed to look at the extensive abuse – will never get at the bottom of the unconstitutional spying,” said Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group.
The review group met with Obama in late August and with a dozen civil liberties and business groups in a pair of meetings in September. Some who attended said they raised concerns about the programs, but panel members – at least one was missing from each meeting – did not respond to them, saying in several instances they could not reveal information because it is classified.