Left-wing panel delivers largely worthless report on NSA surveillance

The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies has released a report (available via link here), which calls for a significant scaling back of NSA surveillance activity. The report is basically what you would expect from a panel whose five members include two left-wing law professors (Cass Sunstein and Geoffrey Stone), a grossly dishonest former bureaucrat (Richard Clarke), the man who helped scrub the Benghazi points to eliminate references to “Islamic extremists,” and a long-time liberal privacy advocate (Peter Swire).

In other words, the report is, for the most part, ideologically-driven nonsense.

I suspect, moreover, that this is about what the White House expected from the panel it hand-picked. Team Obama is far too shrewd to have picked this sort of panel if it wanted anything like an endorsement of the status quo.

Keep this in mind when you hear opponents of NSA surveillance attempt to draw significance from the fact that “the president’s own panel” repudiated his policies. More likely, the president is laying the ground work for a shift in policy that he desires. (But do read the take of Ben Wittes, who sees the matter quite differently)

Max Boot’s indictment of the substance of the report is must reading:

The panel cites no examples–not one–of actual abuses committed by the NSA or other surveillance agencies today. In fact from everything we know the NSA has been scrupulous in its use of metadata. Although it has maintained a vast database of American calls overseas it queried that database only 300 times last year under procedures supervised by both Congress and the courts.

For all of his leaks, Edward Snowden could not cite a single actual example of the NSA spying on someone it wasn’t supposed to be spying on or using the information it attained for personal or partisan advantage rather than to safeguard the national interest. The review group can’t cite a single such example either; it is forced to resort to generalized concerns about “privacy” being invaded by the government, even though the collection of metadata is a lot less intrusive than widespread surveillance by security cameras on the streets or by Internet commerce companies online.

In short it seems that we have learned from history and figured out how to collect intelligence without committing the abuses of the past. But that doesn’t stop the panel from recommending steps that will hamper the NSA’s attempts to monitor terrorist groups and other threats to national security.

The Review Group’s featured recommendation is that “Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.” What a ridiculous recommendation. As Boot explains:

This would obviously make searching the metadata more difficult, especially if the government has to contact multiple firms to get data rather than going to a single source. And why on earth do the panel members trust employees of Verizon and AT&T–much less of some potential future private corporation that would hold metadata records from all of the existing telecom firms–more than they trust the employees of the NSA?

Those NSA employees are carefully vetted and overseen and they operate with an ethos of service to the nation. Why should we repose more trust in random telecom company employees, who are motivated (and rightly so) by profits not patriotism, to hold records that the panel believes are so important?

Elsewhere in the report, the panel calls for cutting back or eliminating the use of private firms to do background checks on intelligence community employees such as Edward Snowden. But while reining in private firms in one area, the panel seems to be reposing vast trust in them in another area.

In sum, the panel has offered some badly misguided solutions for an alleged problem the existence of which it fails to demonstrate. In doing so, I suspect, it has behaved as Obama expected and wanted it to.

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