Obama asks NSA director to restore '€˜public trust'

Critics question James Clapper's ability to establish an independent body to review US spy programs

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (left), and CIA Director John Brennan testify during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, March 12, 2013.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. intelligence director James Clapper, who has apologized to Congress for providing "clearly erroneous" testimony about the federal government's controversial telephone- and internet-surveillance programs, was tasked Monday by the Obama administration to assemble a team of "outside experts" to review how spying effects the nation.

"At the direction of the President, I am establishing the Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies to examine our global signals-intelligence collection and surveillance capability," Clapper confirmed in a statement.

The review group will assess how the government can maintain public trust and how mass-surveillance affects foreign policy at a time when public distrust over government surveillance programs, largely spurred by leaks by former National Security Agency (NSA) consultant Edward Snowden, is at an all-time high.

Pledging to overhaul the country’s spy programs, Obama announced Friday that he would be "forming a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies," before reiterating that the body would be "independent."

In a letter released July 3, Clapper apologized to Congress for making "clearly erroneous" statements during a Senate hearing in which he said the NSA does not collect the electronic communications of Americans.

The Obama administration’s choice to task Clapper with the formation of the review group raised immediate criticism.

Credibility questioned

Rep. Justin Amash, R-MI, a fierce critic of the NSA’s surveillance programs who recently introduced an amendment to curb the agency's mass collection of data, said that Clapper’s involvement undermined the review of the group's credibility.

"Pres Obama believes man who lied to public in congressional hearing about #NSA should lead NSA review process meant to build public trust," he tweeted.

A number of blogs also protested Clapper’s appointment, including Techdirt, which commented that the move represented nothing short of "giving the concerns of the American public a giant middle finger."

White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden denied that Clapper would head the review group, and said that he would only help to establish it.

"Director Clapper will not be a part of the group, and is not leading or directing the group’s efforts," she told The Hill. "The white House is selecting the members of the Review Group, consulting appropriately with the Intelligence Community."

Once assembled, the group has 60 days to deliver its interim findings. A final report and recommendations are due on Dec. 15.

NSA reforms

The formal review is one of four measures unveiled by Obama, who said he had ordered a review of the surveillance programs before Snowden leaked secret documents to the Guardian and The Washington Post.

Obama's other measures include plans to work with Congress to pursue reforms of Section 215 of the Patriot Act that governs the collection of "metadata" such as phone records.  Additional measures would also reform the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which considers requests from law enforcement authorities on intelligence-gathering targets.

Obama also vowed to provide more details about the NSA programs to try to restore any public trust damaged by the Snowden disclosures.

Civil liberty groups demanded more details on Obama's plans, but WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has called the announcement "a victory of sorts for Edward Snowden and his many supporters."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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