If the endgame is transparency, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board seems to have set the tone early, if inadvertently. Al Kamen at the Washington Post quickly runs down a story all too familiar to many, many others who have wondered (too late) what the difference between Cc and Bcc actually is.
[W]e were delighted to get an invitation to the board’s Oct. 4 public hearing at the Mayflower Hotel, where executive and judicial branch officials are to discuss changes to federal intelligence surveillance programs in order to adequately “protect privacy and civil liberties.”
Even better to see that the e-mailed invite displayed the e-mail addresses of the hundred or so recipients. Of course most addresses were those of media colleagues and, by definition, pretty useless.
But there were some we were happy to have, especially those for staff at the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Council, the FBI, Justice Department, Treasury and the Pentagon. Sure saves time.
Exposing email addresses? All part of a day's work in the national security complex. That it was an outside board doing the exposing is a little disappointing, but on the bright side, many journalists now have a useful list of email addresses that will help them bypass flacks in the Communications offices.
As for the other, less independent, surveillance-related board? The first meeting with the members of the Surveillance Review Board was actually two
meetings -- one for tech firm reps and one for privacy advocate groups like the
People's Front of Judea
ACLU and EPIC.
The meeting with the tech firm reps was held in the White House's Truman Room, and went down something like this, according to Spencer Ackerman
Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo sent representatives to the inaugural hearing, chaired by Swire. Also in attendance were Alan Davidson of MIT; Atkinson; and Meinrath. There was also representatives of the Information Technology Industry Council, Rackspace, and the Software and Information Industry Association...
The meeting itself struck Meinrath as bizarre. Representatives from the technology firms were identified around the table not by their names, but by placards listing their employers. There was minimal technical discussion of surveillance mechanisms despite the presence of technology companies; Meinrath took the representatives to be lawyers, not technologists.
When it appeared like the meeting would discuss a surveillance issue in a sophisticated way, participants and commissioners suggested it be done in a classified meeting. Meinrath interpreted that as a maneuver to exclude his more-critical viewpoint.
So, essentially pointless. Many of the tech companies are currently engaged
in legal battles in hopes of making reporting on government requests for data more transparent. Others, like Microsoft, have been more cooperative
with the NSA's requests in the past, but seem a bit more hesitant to do so in the future.
Meinrath's assessment of the tech meeting is pretty damning.
Meinrath said he was surprised by the circumscribed discussion: "I didn't find anyone saying the bulk surveillance is horrendous and bad for our democracy." He declined to discuss specifics. "The companies are concerned that it impacts their bottom line. My concern is they're looking to preserve the function of the NSA," Meinrath said.
Asked if that was the perspective of the government or the companies, Meinrath replied: "I'm not sure you can separate the two."
Granted, this was the first
set of meetings by the Surveillance Review Board, but based on what was observed here, it appears Meinrath's initial feeling that these administration moves will amount to nothing more than a "simulacrum of meaningful reform" is spot on.
This feeling isn't alleviated at all by the details of the second meeting.
One group included civil libertarian organizations such as the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It met in a conference room on K and 20th Streets. Morrell and Clarke did not attend.
That's right. The civil libertarians weren't even allowed into the White House, much less given a chance to speak to the entire board. This would seem to indicate that the Board (which operates at the behest of the administration and reports to the Director of National Intelligence) believes tech companies require full attention while safeguarding constitutional rights should be granted no more than half-measures. It would also appear that the government's main concern is winning over the tech companies in order to continue the bulk surveillance unimpeded. The concerns of the public were relegated to a separate, underattended conference room blocks away from the White House.
Finally, there's no escaping the fact that any efforts towards reforming the surveillance system will still be routed through James Clapper
. Much like every corporate participant, the administration had no comment.
The White House deferred comment to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which did not respond.
So, a pair of inauspicious moments for two groups ostensibly aimed at achieving the near-mythical "balance" between security and privacy. If anything's going to be achieved, the Surveillance Review Board will have to start viewing the rights of Americans as equally important as the opinions of tech companies.