ABC News reported that President Obama will name a slate of government veterans to the “high-level group of outside experts” he is convening to review government information gathering. Naturally, some critics immediately complained that “insiders” would compose the “outside” panel. Others attacked one of the president’s choices — former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein, who once said some odd stuff about how the government should attempt to “cognitively infiltrate” discussion groups and other forums to refute fringe conspiracy theorists.
But civil libertarians should be happier about another apparent Obama pick: Peter Swire. Yes, he served in the Clinton and Obama White Houses. And, sure, he’s not a bomb-throwing ideologue, which might be a problem for some. Instead, he appears to be a measured but critical voice of post-9/11 information-gathering practices.
During the Clinton years, Swire was the White House’s chief counselor for privacy. In 2007, he roundly condemned warrantless wiretapping under President George W. Bush, arguing that it was both illegal and unwise. Since the Edward Snowden leaks, he has continued to criticize the government. Here’s what he said last month in an interview with the Information Security Media Group:
The problem with great big databases is, once they exist, people find ways to use them. During the J. Edgar Hoover years, there’s a history of growing surveillance in a lot of ways – wire taps of Martin Luther King; surveillance of Vietnam War protestors; and at the Democratic National Convention of 1972, a third of the delegates in the political convention were under FBI surveillance. As part of my history of FISA work – Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act work – having studied the uses and abuses of the data during the anti-communist era up through the 1970s that led up to Watergate, I think that having those kinds of databases is a real problem. . . .
Do we have anything like the right checks and balances in place right now? We’ve been whittling those away a lot over the last 12 or 14 years, and it’s time to say it’s a moment of relative calm when we can look at it relatively rationally and put some checks and balances back in place.
In other words, Swire sounds like someone who will help balance out the inherent institutionalism that observers worry will be characteristic of some of the other members on Obama’s panel.
I’m more concerned about how much the committee will be able to say. Obama’s remarks on the matter appeared to offer the panel a fairly broad mandate. Its members should conduct a wide-ranging and unconstrained review of the National Security Agency’s past and future. That review should then get to the Oval Office without current intelligence officials mediating the message. At the same time, the government should post a minimally-redacted version on the Internet. Despite the culture of secrecy in the intelligence community, the country needs, on the record, an informed, comprehensive analysis that makes sense of what the government’s general capabilities are, how they’re used, broadly, and what changes Congress or the Obama administration should make. If the president’s panel doesn’t produce that, the public has every right to complain.