The man who misled Congress on spying will pick Obama’s intelligence review panel (Updated)

August 12, 2013

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Update: In a Tuesday email, the White House says that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will not, in fact, choose the members of the Review Group. "The panel members are being selected by the White House, in consultation with the Intelligence Community," writes National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "The panel will not report to the DNI."

Here's how the president's Monday memo described Clapper's role:

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 ... Within 60 days of its establishment, the Review Group will brief their interim findings to me through the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the Review Group will provide a final report and recommendations to me through the DNI no later than December 15, 2013.

Our original story follows.


On Friday, President Obama promised to appoint an "independent group" of "outside experts" to review the government's surveillance programs.

Today, the president formally ordered the formation of this group, giving us a sense for just how independent the group would be. The announcement doesn't inspire confidence that the president is interested in truly independent scrutiny of the nation's surveillance programs.

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.

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 U.S. 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."

For students of history, this will be a familiar pattern. In 1975, President Gerald Ford created a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to examine allegations of abuses by American intelligence agencies. But the commission's close ties to the executive branch prevented it from doing a thorough and vigorous investigation of the intelligence agencies' activities.

Instead, truly vigorous oversight came from independent committees created by Congress: a Senate committee headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and a House committee headed by Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.). The same point is likely to hold today: genuinely independent oversight will come only from Congress, not a commission hand-picked by the nation's top intelligence official.

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Timothy B. Lee | August 12, 2013