When President Obama announced a series of intelligence reforms last Friday he called for the creation of an independent advisory group made up of "outside experts" who will review controversial surveillance programs. But based on a memorandum issued today by the White House, it's not clear how independent the effort will be. The president has directed the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to establish the "review group" that will be responsible for issuing a report about how surveillance programs "impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy." The review group is intended in part, as the president said last week, to "maintain the trust of the people" — so why did the president put a man at the center of the spying controversy in charge?
While Clapper may be technically well-suited to direct a review group given the intelligence community's unique need for secrecy, it may be difficult to sell the process to the American people with current skepticism about his accountability. Earlier this month, lawmakers concerned with the government's broad surveillance efforts said that Clapper should resign for lying to Congress. "[Clapper] was here in March and unambiguously lied to Congress," Rep. Thomas Massie (R, KY) told Democracy Now. "And I believe he was under oath. And it really sets a bad precedent for the whole organization to let him keep his post." Several other lawmakers including Rep. Justin Amash (R, MI), who led a charge to curb the NSA's telephone surveillance program, echoed the call for Clapper's resignation.
Tech titans may be involved, but the review group is still largely a mystery
There's still a lot we don't know about the review group, including the process for appointing members and who those members might be. President Obama and Director Clapper may solicit advice from notable figures in the technology industry; the president reportedly met with several leaders last Thursday, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google VP Vint Cerf. But with both Apple and Google implicated in some level of cooperation with the government under PRISM, the government may need to solicit input from a broader coalition of stakeholders. President Obama suggested the government may tap such a coalition last Friday, noting that "it makes sense for us to go ahead, lay out exactly what we're doing, have a discussion with Congress, have a discussion with industry... have a discussion with civil libertarians, and see if we can do this better."
Regardless of who is selected to participate in the program, the results may not become part of the public debate. Last week, President Obama merely suggested that more details about government surveillance may be publicly disclosed. Furthermore, the review group will not directly report to the public or to the president; the memorandum notes that the president will be briefed on both the interim report and the final report and recommendations through Director Clapper.