In response to the information released by Edward Snowden and the resulting public outrage, President Obama decided to set up an intelligence review panel to assuage fears that the government is abusing its surveillance authority. Unfortunately, Obama chose General James Clapper, who misled Congress under oath about the NSA, to set up the panel.
The group of intelligence experts is supposed to be independent, but how independent can a group be that Clapper selects?
The panel will be chosen by, and report to, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper famously answered “no sir” when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked whether the NSA collects information about millions of Americans. Clapper has since conceded that this answer was “clearly erroneous.”
And there are other signs that the group won’t turn out quite the way the president described it on Friday. Friday’s speech talked about the need for input from outside experts with independent points of view. The president made no mention of the need for outsiders or independent viewpoints in his memo to Clapper.
No one was expecting Obama to embrace radical transparency, but this is basically a joke. A ham-handed sleight of hand that could only fool the most casual of observers. The Obama Administration decided to investigate itself and to do so put one of its most loyal apparatchiks in charge of the effort.
The stated mission of the group has also shifted. On Friday, Obama said the group would examine “how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse.” But today’s memo makes no mention of preventing abuses. Instead, it will examine whether US surveillance activity “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.”
In other words, how do we get the public to trust us without doing anything to earn that trust?
Putting Clapper in charge of the intelligence review is all but admitting that this is a PR exercise. The problem for President Obama is that his reputation on surveillance state reform has been damaged by the lack of achievement in office and also the Snowden revelations. Trying to be sly like this in the second term will not work. He is rapidly losing credibility on this issue and if he wants to regain “the trust of the people” he is going to have to conduct a real review and take substantive action on the findings.