Edward Snowden, displayed on television screens, asks a question to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a nationally televised question-and-answer session, in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Speaking in a televised call-in show with the nation, Putin harshly criticized the West for trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit and said that people in eastern Ukraine have risen against the authorities in Kiev, who ignored their rights and legitimate demands. Putin also took a video question from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, whom Russia granted asylum last year. Asked by Snowden about Russia's surveillance programs, Putin said that Russian special services also tap on communications in their fight against terrorism, but don't do it on such a massive scale as the U.S. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
President Barack Obama on Monday ordered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to create a special committee charged with reviewing America’s high-tech spying programs.
Obama’s memo to Clapper, made public by the White House, calls for the creation of a “Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” that will have until Dec.15th to report back.
“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,” Obama said in the memo.
The order came after a former aide to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon ― one of the program's fiercest critics in Congress ― delivered a body blow to Obama’s frequent claim that he welcomes the debate over the sweeping collection of Americans’ phone and Internet records.
When it comes to open debate and the democratic process, Jennifer Hoelzer wrote, “it seems to me if your Administration was really committed those things, your Administration wouldn't have blocked every effort to have an open debate on these issues each time the laws that your Administration claims authorizes these programs came up for reauthorization, which ― correct me if I am wrong ― is when the democratic process recommends as the ideal time for these debates.”
(Hoelzer’s post is a must-read, informed by her experience working with Wyden, sharply worded, darkly funny, and methodical when it comes to various ways in which the Administration and its allies in Congress have short-circuited public debate on surveillance.)
The latest debate, such as it is, began after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to reporters details of how the programs operate and their potential for abuse. Snowden's disclosures led civil liberties groups to sound the alarm about what they have called unconstitutional surveillance of Americans.
While Obama insisted publicly at a press conference on Friday that the highly controversial programs are “not abused,” his own administration noted in a “White Paper” released the same day that the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records has suffered from “a number of significant compliance and implementation issues” that “generally involved human error of highly sophisticated technology issues.” (hat tip to Conor Friedersdorf)
Obama announced plans to create the special review group on Friday.
“We’re forming a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies,” the president said.
“I am tasking this independent group to step back and review our capabilities ― particularly our surveillance technologies,” Obama said. “And they’ll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy ― particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public."