AP: NSA review panel looks like "an arm of" DNI

What did the Associated Press expect with the Obama administration’s latest “hey, we’ll investigate ourselves” project? The AP is shocked, shocked to find that the supposedly independent review of the NSA’s practices has started to look a lot like an operation run by its parent organization:

Stung by public unease about new details of spying by the National Security Agency, President Barack Obama selected a panel of advisers he described as independent experts to scrutinize the NSA’s surveillance programs to be sure they weren’t violating civil liberties and to restore Americans’ trust.

But with just weeks remaining before its first deadline to report back to the White House, the review panel has effectively been operating as an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and all other U.S. spy efforts.

The panel’s advisers work in offices on loan from the DNI. Interview requests and press statements from the review panel are carefully coordinated through the DNI’s press office. James Clapper, the intelligence director, exempted the panel from U.S. rules that require federal committees to conduct their business and their meetings in ways the public can observe. Its final report, when it’s issued, will be submitted for White House approval before the public can read it.

Even the panel’s official name suggests it’s run by Clapper’s office: “Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.”

That would be the same James Clapper who misled Congress on the nature of the NSA’s activities, and then later claimed to have been as transparent as possible.  Ron Wyden had actually given Clapper a full day’s notice on the question, but rather than ask for a classified briefing, offered a false denial instead.  Now he’s basically running the investigation into himself, but we knew that already.  The AP is just catching up.

The stakeholders in the debate, at least those outside of the government, have hardly been impressed with its independence or transparency.  Even when discussing unclassified matters, the meetings with technology providers have remained closed and exclusive:

Its meetings in recent weeks with technology industry and privacy groups have been closed to the public even though no classified information was discussed, according to participants. Attendees told The Associated Press they raised concerns about the NSA’s spying programs. During one session, two participants said, panel members said the group might hold a separate classified meeting soon with technology executives to discuss details of secret surveillance programs.

In neither of the two sessions has the panel given any indication that they have changes to recommend to the ODNI.  When participants raised the key issues to the panel, they gave one of two responses, according to Sascha Meinrath of the Open Technology Institute: “we were told to put that into record on the website, or else we were told it was classified.”

As I noted last month when the White House announced that the DoJ would probe the DEA’s use of massive telecom records, this follows a very familiar pattern:

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  Allegations arise of abuses of power and wrongdoing in a subordinate agency of a Cabinet department, which then conducts an investigation that lays the blame on a few low-level staffers and then insists that any further debate on the issue is nothing more than a “phony scandal.” The State Department did that with Benghazi, Treasury (or at least the White House’s spin on the IG report) with the IRS, and the Department of Justice with Operation Fast and Furious. The DoJ will now take a second spin on the Wheel Of Scapegoats by launching its own investigation into the DEA’s alleged widespread spying[.]

Again, most of us understood that this would be another Benghazi-ARB-style whitewash from the beginning.  The AP gets a Captain Louis Renault award for its sudden shock at the obvious:

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David Strom 3:21 PM on March 24, 2023