Review Board Drives NSA Activities into Further Secrecy

Surveillance experts slam Obama’s new post-Snowden watchdog.

President Barack Obama, shown Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, at the White House in Washington, is seeing declining approval ratings this summer.

President Barack Obama, shown Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, at the White House in Washington, is seeing declining approval ratings this summer.

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An attempt by President Barack Obama to shine a light on the government surveillance activities first unveiled by NSA leaker Edward Snowden falls far short of his purported goal of transparency, experts say.

Obama announced Monday afternoon that he has tasked top spy James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, to form an outside group to examine how the government monitors phone records, Internet access and other intelligence. The group has 60 days to present initial findings to the president and must complete its review by December.

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Surveillance experts question the president's decision to have the head of intelligence create what is supposed to be an independent group, and to require no public participation.

"Right now it looks like a secret evaluation of a secret interpretation of the law," says Alan Butler, advocacy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "We've taken a process that everyone agrees is supposed to be more transparent and we've put it in the hands of the ODNI, someone who has historically been very bad about doing this transparently."

This review board should be an independent and outside assessment, and is neither, he says, adding that the process will likely only produce a "thumbs up or thumbs down signal."

"Or even less than that: Are we going to get something out of this process that is understandable and meaningful?" Butler says.

Amy Zegart, an expert on intelligence gathering, says this is a political move to try to limit the damage that has been caused by Edward Snowden and his discussion of NSA programs.

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"This is a step to stop the bleeding," says Zegart, a professor at Stanford and author of multiple books on U.S. intelligence and surveillance.


Obama and members of Congress tasked with oversight have claimed the program Snowden unveiled, known as PRISM, solely traces known terrorists' communications within the United States. It does not monitor the content of a phone call or internet message without proof of security wrongdoing, they say.

"I don't have an interest and the people at the NSA don't have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get information ahead of time, that we're able to carry out that critical task," Obama said at a press conference last week. "We've tried to set up a system that is as failsafe, as so far at least we've been able to think of, to make sure that these programs are not abused."

"The programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true, without the reforms. The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable," he said.

[STUDY: NSA Could Cost U.S. Companies Billions]

Zegart criticizes the administration's defense of these programs and points to what she says is a clear shift in public opinion of the role of the NSA and its activities. Obama's latest announcement does not include recommendations for public hearings, public debate or public disclosure, she adds.

"That's disturbing," she says.

Both experts call on more public participation, chiefly through greater congressional oversight. Butler points to the Church Committee, the 1970s Senate body formed by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to study the legality of CIA, FBI and NSA activities. It paved the way for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"Congress has been down this road before, and its in Congress that the public looks to find information about these programs. Not [Clapper]," says Butler. "He really can't do his job and really be outside and independent to review these programs."

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Obama is attempting to exert some control without Congress passing hasty and sweeping legislation on the issue, says Zegart, criticizing the legislature for jumping on an opportunity to slam the executive branch without actually practicing oversight.

Zegart also points to a waning public appetite for government surveillance. Fear of another attack after Sept. 11, 2001 gave a wide berth to intelligence activities, but that was short-lived.