President Barack Obama has faced withering criticism around the globe for his secret spying programs. How has he responded? With more secrecy.
Obama has been gradually tweaking his vast government surveillance policies. But he is not disclosing those changes to the public. Has he stopped spying on friendly world leaders? He won’t say. Has he stopped eavesdropping on the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? He won’t say.
Even the report by the group Obama created to review and recommend changes to his surveillance programs has been kept secret.
Critics note that this comes after he famously promised the most open administration in history.
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“They seem to have reverted to a much more traditional model of secrecy except when it’s politically advantageous,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, and is an expert on – and prominent critic of – government secrecy. “That’s normal but not consistent with their pledge.”
For five months, former government contractor Edward Snowden has steadily released classified information to the media that shows the breadth of the federal government programs that have guided intelligence gathering since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Documents show the National Security Agency had been collecting telephone and email records on tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil, and spying on a host of global institutions.
As criticism swelled at home and abroad, Obama said the nation should examine how the government can strike a balance between national security and privacy concerns. He said at an August news conference that Americans will resolve any disagreements about the NSA programs through “vigorous public debate.”
But what started out as a national examination largely turned into a private review with few public meetings, little document disclosure and next to no public debate, say some lawmakers, technology organizations and civil liberties groups. And now, as those behind-the-scenes reviews begin to wind down, Obama is not providing details of the results.
“As part of the overall review of our intelligence-gathering practices, decisions are being made by the president and implemented by the president, but beyond that, I have to ask you to wait until the reviews, the various reviews have been completed and we have more to say,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge, which promotes Internet openness and provided recommendations to the White House on this issue, said administration officials are asking Americans to trust them, but their past actions have provided no reason to do so. “Where are the reserves of trust supposed to come from?” he asked.
On his first day in office, Obama offered a sweeping promise of transparency, issuing a number of executive actions to provide more openness at every level of the federal government and greater disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Obama wrote at the time. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
But over the last five years, watchdog groups say, Obama has relied on state secrets and secret laws to make national security decisions with little congressional or public oversight, much as did his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
In recent months, Obama and James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, have made statements that diminished the scope of – or outright denied the existence of – surveillance programs.
Carney and other administration officials say they are prohibited by law from revealing more details because the surveillance programs are classified and revelations could threaten national security.
Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, which pushes Internet freedom and provided recommendations to the White House on this issue, suggested it declassify more programs in order to talk about them. “The blowback is only going to get worse,” he said.
In the past several months the government has released some documents, primarily about phone and email record collections. Some are heavily redacted, with thick black lines obscuring numerous dates, names and entire paragraphs.
Clapper says that he has released them at Obama’s request to be more transparent, but many were released as a result of court orders as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group.
“The American people deserve an open conversation about how the administration is interpreting its authority to conduct surveillance of Americans,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who has advocated for NSA changes. “I believe we can protect our national security and our constitutional rights, and I would like to see the administration make a genuine effort to respond to the many legitimate concerns that have been raised. So far, its efforts have raised more questions than they have answered.”
In response to criticism about NSA programs, Obama expects to receive recommendations from at least two government groups – an advisory group he created this summer and an independent organization within the executive branch with presidentially nominated members.
The first panel – the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology – provided an interim report to National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco last week, but it was not released to the public. A final report is due Dec. 15, but it’s not clear if the entire document would be made public. “We expect that the outcomes of their work will be made public in some way,” said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman.
The second panel – the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board – recently held its first substantive hearing since its creation by Congress in 2004. It plans to provide recommendations to the White House but has not released a timetable.
Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he doesn’t expect the administration to change much even amid the intense criticism. This administration, he said, has always held fast against similar criticism. For example, it resisted for years bipartisan pressure to release more information about its top-secret targeted killing program.
“It’s a pattern of the Obama administration,” he said.