White House denies intel chief will lead NSA surveillance review

The Obama administration is denying that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, will control a review of the government's surveillance programs.

Privacy advocates expressed dismay on Monday after President Obama directed Clapper to establish a group that will provide recommendations for reforming the controversial surveillance programs. 

The review is part of the president's push to restore public trust in the programs, but the privacy activists argue that the group can't be independent if it is led by the administration's top intelligence official. 

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"Director Clapper will not be a part of the group, and is not leading or directing the group’s efforts," Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, told The Hill on Tuesday.

"The White House is selecting the members of the Review Group, consulting appropriately with the Intelligence Community," she said, adding that the administration expects to announce the members of the group soon.

Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, also said that the group will "not be under the direction of or led by" Clapper. 


"The members will have access to classified information so they need to be administratively attached to a government element but the review process and findings will be their own," Turner said. 

President Obama announced a series of steps on Friday to enhance oversight of the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs.

Among other actions, Obama said an "independent group" made up of a "high-level group of outside experts" would review the programs and prepare a report on its findings.

"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," Obama said.

He sent a memo to Clapper on Monday, directing him to establish the group. The memo said the group will brief the president on its findings and issue a report "through" the director of national intelligence.

Privacy activists expressed fear that Clapper, a vocal defender of NSA surveillance, would prevent the group from conducting rigorous oversight.

"If this was about 'restoring the trust' of the American people that the government isn't pulling a fast one over on them, President Obama sure has a funny way of trying to rebuild that trust," Mike Masnick wrote on his blog TechDirt. "This seems a lot more like giving the concerns of the American public a giant middle finger." 

Amie Stepanovich, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said she still doubts the group can be independent with Clapper playing a central coordinating role.

"It's just inherently not independent, and it's not likely to solicit any meaningful results," she said.

She noted that Clapper has apologized for stating in a Senate hearing in March that the NSA does not collect any data on millions of people in the United States. The NSA has since acknowledged collecting records on virtually all U.S. phone calls.

Clapper said his answer was the "least untruthful" one he could give at the time.

"We have a man who has confessed to lying to Congress, and in doing so, he has publicly exhibited his disdain for the oversight process that he is now coordinating," Stepanovich said.

Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she believes the review group can produce meaningful results if it includes privacy advocates, academics and other people who are independent from the surveillance agencies.

"We really want this to be a fresh set of eyes who are going to look at this top to bottom," she said. "We don't want it to be the same old folks having the same old conversation about programs they've already endorsed."

— Updated at 3:30 p.m. 

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