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Obama’s NSA review board proving the cynics right

Sam Sacks is a political commentator and journalist, the last five years spent covering politics in Washington, DC.

Published time: August 27, 2013 20:20
AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

When the US Congress wants to pretend to solve a problem, they create a “Gang of Six” or a “Gang of Eight.” When the White House wants to pretend to solve a problem, they create a panel – or some sort of independent review board.

Case in point, the White House’s recent problems with the NSA. At a press conference earlier this month, President Obama promised to form “a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies.”

He said this group will “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.”

This panel of “outside experts” would draft a report by the end of the year for “better understanding of how these programs impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy.”

Of course, the more cynical among us (myself included) immediately dismissed this idea of an NSA review board knowing full well that review boards are DC speak for “kick the can down the road.”

And now that we know who’s sitting on this review board of “outside experts,” our cynicisms are well-founded.

The first two outsiders are national security insider Richard Clarke and CIA insider Michael Morell.

Richard Clarke (AFP Photo / Alex Wong)

Clark served on the National Security Council for President Bush 1, Clinton, and Bush 2 – he was basically the counter-terror czar for the White House. Michael Morell spent 33 years working at the Central Intelligence Agency. He briefed Bush on 9/11. He was alongside Obama when Bin Laden was killed. And most recently, he was the former Director of the CIA, stepping down just in March of this year. So he’s been an outsider all of…five months.

Certainly these guys have a breadth of knowledge and experience. But clearly, they’ve spent their careers focused on protecting the United States from a terrorist attack, not keeping the ACLU content by protecting civil liberties. Heck, these guys have probably taken advantage of these very same programs they’re now tasked with reviewing.

So, half the panel has little background in the flip-side of the security coin – the privacy side. Which makes little sense considering that concerns over privacy – and other civil liberties including the First Amendment’s right to free association – are what started this debate over the NSA to begin with.

And the next “outside expert” on the panel is former White House insider Cass Sunstein. He was basically the information and regulatory czar – in charge of reviewing federal regulations and, according to WhiteHouse.gov, overseeing federal policies related to privacy and information quality.

Mr. Sunstein might be a good fit on this panel…except for this: a paper he co-authored in 2010 titled Conspiracy Theories in which he warned of the dangers of people who hold conspiracy theories – and calls on the government to engage in something called “cognitive infiltration” where “government agents might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories.”

In other words, using government to disrupt the free speech activities of innocent Americans. And he’s the guy who’s supposed to be caring about whether or not the NSA is abusing our civil liberties?

But at least the administration was generous enough to stick one guy on this review board who does actually give a damn about NSA abuse. The fourth member of the panel is Peter Swire, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Recently, Swire has supported two legal briefs arguing that the NSA’s mass collection of our metadata is unconstitutional. So, if there’s going to be someone on this NSA outsider independent review board who’s an outsider and actually cares about civil liberties, then it’s Peter Swire. Unfortunately, it’s ONLY Peter Swire.

The rest are very clearly former national security and intelligence officials. Oh, and then there’s Cass Sunstein and his fairly far-out views about “cognitive infiltration.” 

In an interview last week with CNN, President Obama admitted that, “the capabilities of the NSA are scary to people.”

U.S. President Barack Obama (AFP Photo / Jessica Kourkounis)

He’s right. He’s presiding over a global security/surveillance apparatus that’s capable of collecting nearly the entire world’s communications and metadata, storing all of it, and then searching through it to conduct everything from lawful anti-terror investigation to downright scary pre-crime analysis to outright tyrannical Congressional blackmail.

And we’re supposed to believe that the NSA is keeping within its boundaries because they have “safeguards” in place. And just in case we’re not satisfied with the current safeguards, which we shouldn’t be considering recent NSA leaks showing thousands of abuses every year, the President is creating this “outside” review board to find any deficiencies and limit abuse.

This might have worked in the past. But today it won’t. After months of bombshell leaks showing how our government is going about spying on the whole world and misleading the American people, the cynics have been proven right all along. And we can all see right through this administration’s latest disingenuous gesture.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.