Servers1In early August, President Obama created a review panel to examine and guide reforms to US government surveillance. According to the announcement, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was to be chosen by, and report to, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper. After a backlash and some furious backtracking, the White House said, “The panel members are being selected by the White House, in consultation with the Intelligence Community, and will not report to the DNI.”

Although the review panel is supposed to be independent, it is composed of intelligence insiders, former White House officials, and Obama advisers. Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director, leads the panel. He is joined by Richard Clarke, a White House counter-terrorism aide to both Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton. Rounding out the panel are Cass Sunstein, a former White House regulatory staffer who is married to Samantha Power, the new US ambassador to the United Nations; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor who is close personally with Obama; and Peter Swire, a Georgia Tech professor and former aide to Obama and President Clinton. The group is directed to file an interim report to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in 60 days, followed by a full report to President Obama by the end of the year.

According to The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman (my bold),

During its first round of meetings, the panel … separated [into] two groups of outside advisers. One group included civil libertarian organizations such as the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It met in a conference room on K and 20th Streets. Morrell and Clarke did not attend.

The other, which met in the Truman Room of the White House Conference Center, included technology companies that have participated – sometimes uneasily and at court behest – in NSA surveillance. All five panel members participated.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo sent representatives to the inaugural hearing. The discussion was dominated by the interests of major technology firms, and the session did not address making any substantive changes to the mass collection of phone or internet communications. The technology industry’s concerns seemed to dominate the 90-minute meeting.

Robert Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and an attendee, told the Guardian that he ‘did not hear much discussion’ of changes to the bulk surveillance activities.

‘My fear is it’s a simulacrum of meaningful reform,’ said Sascha Meinrath, a vice president of the New America Foundation (a Washington think tank) and the director of the Open Technology Institute, who also attended. ‘Its function is to bleed off pressure, without getting to the meaningful reform.’

‘I didn’t find anyone saying the bulk surveillance is horrendous and bad for our democracy,’ said Meinrath. … ‘The companies are concerned that it impacts their bottom line. My concern is they’re looking to preserve the function of the NSA.’

When asked if that was the perspective of the government or the companies, he responded, ‘I’m not sure you can separate the two.’

The conduct of the initial meeting of the also struck Meinrath as odd, since representatives from the technology firms were identified by placards listing only their employers, not their names. There was minimal technical discussion of surveillance mechanisms, despite the presence of technology companies. Meinrath assessed the representatives as lawyers, not technologists.

When it appeared like the meeting would discuss a surveillance issue in a sophisticated way, participants and commissioners suggested it be done in a classified meeting. Meinrath interpreted that as a maneuver to exclude his more-critical viewpoint.

Also in attendance at the initial meeting of the review panel were Alan Davidson of MIT, and representatives of the Information Technology Industry Council, Rackspace (an IT hosting company), and the Software and Information Industry Association.

Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the White House “should not be segregating the civil liberties groups and the tech industry.” Rotenberg said: “We need to be on the same page when it comes to surveillance reform.”

Interestingly, in an article Wednesday in The Guardian, also by Spencer Ackerman, we learn that

No telecommunications company has ever challenged the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court’s orders for bulk phone records under the Patriot Act, the court revealed on Tuesday.

The secretive Fisa court’s disclosure came inside a declassification of its legal reasoning justifying the National Security Agency’s ongoing bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

To sum up: Obama touts a “review panel” of “outside independent experts” but appoints insiders like Michael Morell and Richard Clarke, who are neither “outside” nor “independent.” Two out of five members of the panel didn’t bother to attend the meeting held with the groups primarily concerned about civil liberties. The panel doesn’t “discuss changes” to “bulk surveillance,” or consider abiding by the constitutional restrictions on search and seizure. So exactly what progress was made here?

I do note that one of the two groups met in the Truman Room of the White House Conference Center. I wonder if this quote hangs on the wall in the room?

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.

[Special Message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States, August 8, 1950] ― Harry S. Truman

Photo by Synobu, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.