After insisting that the government’s unprecedented capability to monitor communications must be assessed by an independent panel with regards to maintaining the trust of Americans, President Barack Obama has announced the formation of a new review group.
A memo issued Monday by the White House said James Clapper, the United States director of national intelligence, is to form a review group tasked to determine if the US “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.”
However, in a confusing turnabout, the White House said on Tuesday that Clapper is not heading the independent review.
“Director Clapper will not be a part of the group, and is not leading or directing the group’s efforts,” Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, told The Hill newspaper on Tuesday.
“The White House is selecting the members of the Review Group, consulting appropriately with the Intelligence Community,” added Hayden.
Comments by the White House seemed to be aimed at distancing the review from criticism lobbed at Clapper’s influence over the NSA review process despite the fact that Monday’s memo indicated the report would come “through the director of national intelligence.
The decision to formalize the board and seemingly appoint Mr. Clapper as its head comes three days after Pres. Obama called for its creation during a rare press conference and two months after National Security Agency documents were leaked to the media disclosing the NSA’s deployment of vast surveillance operations to collect data on the everyday communications of American citizens.
That revelation, attributed to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, initiated widespread discussion in America and abroad about balancing national security with personal privacy.
But at the same time, Mr. Snowden’s disclosures also contradicted a statement made earlier this year by Clapper, which in turn prompted the director of national intelligence to issue a formal apology to high-ranking lawmaker Sen. Dianne Feinstein for lying to Congress.
During a March 2013 hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) asked DNI Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper responded in the negative, but was forced to correct himself when Mr. Snowden’s revelations three months later proved otherwise. The Guardian newspaper published a leaked NSA document on June 5 suggesting that millions of Americans fall subject to government surveillance on a daily basis through a program that regularly collects call records, or “telephony metadata,” for entire populations. On June 21, DNI Clapper wrote Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to apologize for his “clearly erroneous” statement on Capitol Hill.
As a result of that gaffe, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) called for Clapper’s resignation. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) said the director broke the law, and Sen. Wyden said in a statement, “This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”
But while Clapper escaped more-or-less unscathed from what could have ended in his termination or even prosecution for perjury, his appointment to oversee a review board assigned to guide a group investigating the very topic he lied about is quickly rekindling criticism. During Friday’s presser, Mr. Obama said that in addition to establishing the review group he’d be opening up the NSA’s surveillance programs to more transparency and suggested minor reforms. The administration later published documents showing supposed legal justification for the collection of Americans’ phone records, including one white paper that claimed “the collection of bulk data is relevant to FBI investigations of international terrorism.”
“Only in DC,” Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted Monday, “James Clapper, instead of being prosecuted or fired for lying to Congress, will now lead the review of the programs he lied about.”
Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and a co-plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the government’s spy programs, tweeted the “New oversight board will be ‘independent’ in the same sense that the collected metadata is ‘relevant.’”
According to the president’s directive — signed and ordered during while he vacations at Martha’s Vineyard — DNI Clapper will report back to the White House in 60 days to presenting the findings of the review board and their recommendations.
“Recent years have brought unprecedented and rapid advancements in communications technologies, particularly with respect to global telecommunications,” wrote the president. “These technological advances have brought with them both great opportunities and significant risks for our Intelligence Community: opportunity in the form of enhanced technical capabilities that can more precisely and readily identify threats to our security, and risks in the form of insider and cyber threats.”
“I believe it is important to take stock of how these technological advances alter the environment in which we conduct our intelligence mission,” Obama said.
Mr. Clapper confirmed his new position through a statement issued Monday as well.
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