Barack Obama wants to assure the American people that he wants an national debate about domestic surveillance, and an honest accounting about and reform of the NSA’s activities. In order to get all of this accomplished, Obama has appointed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — the man who misled Congress during direct testimony on all of the above — to lead an investigation into the NSA and its surveillance activities. How’s that for a confidence builder?
Whatever the accuracy of the claims of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Snowden and Greenwald, the columnist through whom he’s carried out most of his leaks over the past few months, the storm of outrage over allegations that NSA intelligence collection frequently targets the phone calls and emails of US citizens has gotten the attention of President Barack Obama.
Today, Obama ordered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to name an outside panel to review the United State’s global collection of signals intelligence – meaning its efforts to target phone calls, internet messages, and various forms of electronic communication.
While the letter appears to focus on the risk of leaks and counter-intelligence by enemies, more than on concerns that the Constitution is being violated by NSA dragnets, it’s clear that Obama is worried about the backlash.
Not worried enough, though. The appointment of Clapper comes on the heels of the revelations that he lied to Congress at least once and possibly more often about the nature of the NSA’s surveillance programs, and that he wasn’t the only administration official to do so. This follows the nothing-to-see-here-move-along strategy of “investigations” in the Obama administration, in which the fox investigates the henhouse and finds no crime has been committed. The DoJ is currently employing that strategy with its subsidiary DEA on the same issue of warrantless surveillance on Americans, so why not Clapper with the NSA, too?
Count Adam Serwer a skeptic from the Left, too:
Having Clapper lead the Review Group may seem like assigning the alpha fox to check IDs at the door to the hen house. During a Senate hearing in March, Clapper told Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden that the NSA did not collect Americans’ communications data at all. After former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a court order to the press requesting data for millions of Verizon customers, Clapper admitted to having been “cute” with his response to Wyden.
Clapper’s announcement also places the Review Group’s priorities in a curious order. When Obama described the concept for the review group during a press conference last Friday, he said a group of “outside experts” would “consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy, particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public.”
With Obama, public trust was the first priority of the Review Group. Clapper’s announcement placed it last.
Congress should take the reins on this investigation itself. Members from both parties have criticized the administration’s handling of the NSA issue — either the program itself or Obama’s defense of it — which means they have the motivation and the authority to establish their oversight rights and responsibilities. If they were serious about that, though, the Senate has the means to force the program into the light with a nearly 40-year-old law intended to stop executive-branch abuse of power. So far, though, the upper chamber hasn’t dusted off the law once since its passage:
Outspoken members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have said frequently that they wanted to warn the public about the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of telephone records but the program’s highly classified nature prevented them from making public reference to the programs.
That, however, is not the full story. Buried in the pages of Senate Resolution 400, which established the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1976, is a provision that allows them to try. Across those nearly 40 years, it’s never been used.
The committee’s failure to make use of the provision even once, critics say, underscores a problem with congressional oversight: Congress has proved unwilling to openly question the intelligence agencies’ claims that something must remain secret.
“Clearly, there are some secrets that the government should protect. So it’s serious business,” said former Democratic U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who co-chaired the government’s investigation of 9/11. “But . . . Congress has been, I think, far too deferential to the president in letting him control the classification system.”
The President sent Clapper to mislead Congress, and just appointed him to lead the investigation into th very topic on which he misled them. If there was ever a time to stop being deferential to the President on matters of classification, we have arrived at it now.