Last Friday, President Obama promised a review of current government surveillance practice by an independent group of outside experts. Turns out that the review group will be established by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who's come under fire from Congress for erroneously telling legislators that the U.S. doesn't "collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of million of Americans."
At the direction of the President, I am establishing the Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to examine our global signals-intelligence collection and surveillance capability.The Review Group will assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the United States 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.
The Review Group will brief its interim findings to the President within 60 days of its establishment, and provide a final report with recommendations no later than Dec. 15, 2013.
In a memo, the White House further notes that Clapper, and not the review group, will brief the President on its findings. The extent to which Clapper will (or won't) participate in developing those expectations, however, isn't clear (Update: the DNI clarified this point in a statement to the Wire, which you can read in full below). Here's how the President described the panel to Clapper, upon instructing its creation (via the Christian Science Monitor):
"Recent years have brought unprecedented and rapid advancements in communications technologies, particularly with respect to global telecommunications. 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. To this end, by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I am directing you to establish a Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies."
While the news seems a bit different from what the President's Friday speech outlined, it really shouldn't be that much of a surprise. As the Atlantic Wire explained earlier today, the review was one of several promised reforms the President will put into place with the goal of increasing transparency after some of the NSA's surveillance programs were made public by whistleblower Edward Snowden. But those reforms —along with the "independent" review — are similar to those promised after the administration came under fire for its use of drones: they're designed to ease public criticism, at least in the short term, are not going to (or intended to) substantially change how the administration actually deploys the programs in question.
Update Tuesday, 4:03 p.m.: Shawn Turner, Director of Public Affairs for the DNI sent the Atlantic Wire a statement on Clapper's role in the independent review, clarifying that the intelligence chief will not direct the findings or methods of the group of experts. Here's the statement:
The Review Group will be made up of independent outside experts and is not under the direction of or lead by the DNI. The members will have access to classified information so they need to be administrativel
y attached to a government element but the review processes and findings will be their own.
Update Tuesday, 6:35 p.m.: The White House has now said, according to the Guardian, that Clapper won't select the members of the committee established by the DNI — the White House will. Here's the Guardian:
the White House national security council insisted on Tuesday that Clapper's role would be more limited.
"The panel members are being selected by the White House, in consultation with the intelligence community," national security council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
The DNI had to be involved for administrative reasons, because the panel would need security clearance and access to classified material, she added.