Now six months after Edward Snowden leaked the story to The Guardian, the White House released the 46 recommendations a review panel made regarding the NSA’s surveillance activities. The report was initially kept confidential, but outside pressure finally forced the administration’s hand. You can read the entire 308-page report here if you so desire.
Make no mistake, it was outside pressure and a matter of public perception that spurred the administration to release the panel’s review. There is more than enough reason to doubt Press Secretary Jay Carney’s claim that the administration “had intended to release the review group’s full report in January” – and only did it now because of “inaccurate and incomplete reports in the press” about its content.
Turns out advocates for civil liberties aren’t the only people seething at the administration.
Last Thursday, December 12, the long-standing tension between the White House and the Press Corps came to a head when the Associated Press’s Director of Photography – Santiago Lyon – released an op-ed titled “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.” The White House Press Corps has been frustrated by the administration’s penchant for denying photojournalists access to the president. Last month 38 news organizations came together to protest this practice. The stern letter can be read here. Santiago Lyon did not hold back his criticism in the op-ed, tearing apart the administration’s “hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency [President Obama] campaigned on.” From the first time reporters were denied access to the president – his first day in office in 2009 – photographers have only been allowed into the Oval Office twice.
Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, is the way Mr. Obama’s administration … has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access. … Pictures of him at work with his staff in the Oval Office — activities to which previous administrations routinely granted access — have never been allowed.
Instead, here’s how it’s done these days: An event involving the president discharging his official duties is arbitrarily labeled “private,”with media access prohibited. A little while later an official photo is released[.”] … These so-called private events include meetings with world leaders and other visitors of major public interest — just the sorts of activities photojournalists should, and used to, have access to.
The president’s meeting with tech executives on Tuesday, December 17th – which was supposed to be about HealthCare.gov – was overwhelmed by demands that the administration change the NSA’s surveillance programs. Monday, December 16th a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s collection of telephone calls is “likely unconstitutional.” The final decision on that will likely have to be made in a Supreme Court ruling. Not to mention that the NSA is incredibly unpopular among the American people.
As of right now, the White House is not on the best terms with sectors of the press, the federal court system, the American people – and not to mention our foreign allies. On the same day that he had the meeting with those tech executives, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told off President Obama and compared the US’s surveillance program with those the Stasi employed. The Stasi were the secret police in communist East Germany where Merkel grew up.
This truly has been a terrible week for the White House.
So what else is an incredibly secretive administration – an administration being called out on it from many sides – to do when everyone knows they’re sitting on an NSA panel review they probably don’t want people to see? Throw a Hail Mary pass, release the documents, and wait.
Why wait rather than play hard defense? The problem is with the report itself. While the review panel has been described as an “outside advisory group” that’s not actually the case.
Remember that President Obama was the one who set up the review panel back in August. The review panel – Cass Sunstein, Geoffrey Stone, Peter Swire, Richard Clarke, and Michael Morrell – all had to go through Intelligence Director James Clapper. Clapper’s performance was not reviewed. “Several” of the five people on the review panel “have long connections to Mr. Obama,” according to a New York Times report. The members who don’t have ties to Obama himself do have ties to the security community. Morrell is the former acting CIA director. There were no “pure technical experts … on a panel that ought to be assessing technical alternatives,” as The Guardian‘s Marcy Wheeler pointed out.
Perhaps the report’s content is harsh enough for some people to be optimistic about reform, but there’s plenty of reason for cynics to remain cynical.
Jay Carney did say that Obama is “extremely grateful” for the report (har har). In September, experts who advised the panel stated that they thought the panel wouldn’t recommend any significant changes — which clearly isn’t the case. Yet the president put this group together. They didn’t bother to review Clapper’s performance. Some officials say that the White House has already “indicated” that they won’t make any major changes to their phone record collecting. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have stood strong in support of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. Nothing happened with that bipartisan Senate bill introduced in September to reform NSA practices.
At a time when the ground is crumbling beneath the White House’s feet, it’s hard to see this as anything but a way to punt on the question of transparency. “Here’s a report talking about stuff people already know about or have already whispered about. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. Look how transparent we are. Aren’t we so open? Will that get you to leave us alone about this?”
And then it’s easy enough to do absolutely nothing. The press goes quiet. People forget about the whole story in a month or two. Then it’s back to business as usual.
Will any of the panel’s recommendations be implemented? Who knows?
But I remain cynical.