Privacy Advisor

Skepticism Surrounds NSA Review; Massive “Black” Budget Revealed

August 30, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

Opinion is streaming in surrounding U.S. President Barack Obama’s creation of an independent board to investigate the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance operations, and much of it is highly critical. Focus is generally on Obama’s promise that the experts on the panel would be “outsiders” and commenters’ opinion that the members of the panel are anything but.

Sam Sacks, a DC-based political writer, penned a piece for RT titled “Obama’s NSA review board proving the cynics right.” In it, he argues that review boards are “DC speak for ‘kick the can down the road’” anyway, and that we shouldn’t have expected anything different.

“Certainly these guys have a breadth of knowledge and experience,” he writes, “But clearly, they’ve spent their careers focused on protecting the United States from a terrorist attack, not keeping the ACLU content by protecting civil liberties.”

However, like other writers, he singles out Peter Swire, CIPP/US, as “an outsider [who] actually cares about civil liberties,” despite his affiliation with the Clinton White House.

Tech Crunch is less critical, saying the establishment of the board in general is a promise kept by Obama and there’s something in that. However, Gregory Ferenstein also identifies Cass Sunstein, Richard Clark and Michael Morell as “White House and intelligence insiders,” and points again to Swire as the only “privacy hawk” on the panel, especially considering his endorsement of two court briefs supporting the idea that the NSA’s collection of phone records is illegal.

Ferenstein also notes the cynicism of elected officials like Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), who has been very critical of the NSA’s operations in general.

Perhaps most critical is Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, saying “President Obama’s NSA review panel isn’t the change we need,” and summarizing criticism that’s been leveled from the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the ACLU, despite the inclusion of Geoffrey Stone, who sits on the board of the ACLU. Perhaps that’s because the University of Chicago law professor is already on record saying Edward Snowden is “most certainly a criminal who deserves serious punishment” and there is “absolutely nothing illegal or criminal about these programs.”

Finally, FedScoop does well to provide biographic information on all five members of the review panel.

The other major NSA news revealed yesterday comes from the The Washington Post, which has gained access from Snowden to the so-called “black budget” for the U.S. intelligence agencies. At $52.6 billion for 2013, the Post has summarized the 178-page document and pulled out a number of “notable revelations.” Among them:

• The CIA’s budget is 50 percent larger, at $14.7 billion, than the NSA’s budget.

• The intelligence community was already worried about employees of contractors having too much access and had plans to reinvestigate at least 4,000 people this year with high-level security clearances.

• The CIA and NSA already are hacking into foreign computer networks to steal information and sabotage enemy states.

• Counterterrorism plans account for one third of the entire intelligence spend.

Perhaps most ironic in light of the hue and cry surrounding the NSA’s stated desire to gather the “whole haystack” of available electronic communications, is a planned spend of $48.6 million for research projects to help with “coping with information overload.”

Lastly, in wrapping up U.S.-surveillance reporting overnight, security writer Bruce Schneier has a long post up today on “the NSA Commandeering the Internet,” wherein he looks at the fate of Lavabit as a case study.

And The Telegraph reveals the somewhat shocking news that David Miranda, partner of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, was carrying the password to encrypted national security files leaked by Edward Snowden on a piece of paper in his pocket.

A British senior Cabinet Office security adviser called this “very poor judgment.”

Editor’s Note: We have just confirmed that Peter Swire, CIPP/US, will speak at the IAPP Privacy Academy, September 30 to October 2, in summarizing the findings of the review board, which are due in 60 days. 

 

Read More By Sam Pfeifle:
A Turbulent Time for Gathering Privacy Commissioners
PCLOB to U.S. Intelligence: Update Data-Gathering Guidelines Now
PRIVACY IN POPULAR CULTURE: Privacy Is “More Complicated Than We Realized”

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