Obama’s James Clapper’s Committee To Make You Love the Dragnet Has a Kiddie Table'>Obama’s James Clapper’s Committee To Make You Love the Dragnet Has a Kiddie Table

Spencer Ackerman has a review of how the first two meetings of Obama’s Non-Tech Tech Review panel have gone. And while they went about as horribly as I suspected — certainly there was no talk of actually fixing obvious problems with the dragnet — there are a few details that show how “most exceptional” this effort is.

The White House, having taken pains to pretend James Clapper is not in charge of the Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, referred comment to James Clapper.

The White House deferred comment to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which did not respond.

The Non-Tech Tech Review Panel comes with a kiddie table — or rather, a conference room almost two miles away from the White House, where the tech giants got to eat.

During its first round of meetings, the panel, known as the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, separated two groups of outside advisers. 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.

The other, which met in the White House Conference Center, included technology companies that have participated – sometimes uneasily and at court behest – in NSA surveillance. All five panel members participated.

I’m not surprised the CIA’s representative on the Committee to Make You Love the Dragnet refused to be seen at the kiddie table with civil libertarians. But Richard Clarke?

Finally, the tech companies appear not to have sent tech experts.

The meeting itself struck [New America Foundation VP Sascha] 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.

Apparently, Cass Sunstein didn’t even have to get caught proposing weird conspiracy theories to make this thing a laughingstock.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    the tech companies are invited to the whitehouse to listen.

    the civil liberties groups end up in in a room on k street.

    this is seems almost childish behavior on the part of the administration.

    i have a hard time understanding the open contempt this administration displays for civil liberties.

    it’s getting pathological, and still the president floats disinterestedly above the fray.

  2. Snoopdido says:

    I think that whenever Clapper speaks, it should be called claptrap.

    noun: claptrap;
    1. absurd or nonsensical talk or ideas.

  3. Strangely Enough says:

    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.

    Not only a kiddie table, but a VIP room, as well…

  4. What Constitution says:

    But did Clapper nudge Swire (who apparently chaired the grown-ups’ meeting) and say “I didn’t get a harrumph from that guy” at any point in the proceedings?

  5. Bronwyn says:

    This seems like classic Obama Administration to me. Never lose a chance to let people know when they’re being sent around to the servants’ entrance. A fellow activist I highly respect once said to me I should make sure and praise Obama when he did things I like, because when you just complain, the politician is liable to get up and leave the table. I said, “I don’t think Obama and I are at the same table, unless I’m the one taking his order.”

    And Clarke seems to have been reined in by our lords and masters. No more Grayson anti-NSA panels for you, Mr. Clarke! Come engage in our unbelievably transparent Kabuki dance instead.

    Maybe next year we can establish a Task Force to analyze the results of the Review Panel.

  6. Peterr says:

    From Spencer:

    The Obama administration and the tech firms involved have intimated that they are interested in changing the surveillance activities, although neither has committed to concrete steps.

    That was how Obama portrayed the creation of the panel on 9 August, when he announced its creation in a press conference: “They’ll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used.”

    The desire to “maintain the trust of the people” is a laudable goal, but it assumes the presence of trust to begin with — an assumption Spencer notes later in the piece is . . . what’s the technical term for it? . . . wrong:

    The companies were also concerned with the NSA undermining encryption standards used for their online business, a story broken last week by the Guardian in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica.

    “There was one discussion about how the NSA has been involved in the global encryption community, [to] develop better standards. The NSA won’t be welcomed anymore in these conversations,” Atkinson said, citing a breakdown of trust.

    If even the tech companies don’t trust the NSA, getting the rest of us to trust the NSA is going to be a real stretch.

  7. C says:

    @orionATL: I wonder if the separation was at the tech companies’ request. After all their bottom line is threatened if people stop trusing them and the Civil Libertarians who had previously championed their cause will not hesitate to roast them if they learn how willing they really were.

    As a more general point with respect to Obama’s conduct I remember reading some article early on that laid out his options. I don’t recall the exact phrase right now but to paraphrase it: “It remains to be seen whether Obama will embrace the tide of public opinion and establish himself as a champion of civil rights or to stand against it and be washed under.”

    Clearly he has chosen to drown.

  8. C says:

    @C: Incidentally drown was a metaphor for being cast aside by history as an opponent of civil liberties and a free society. In case that wasn’t clear :)

  9. orionATL says:


    i was a bit worried about writing what i wrote because any number of things could have accounted for the seperation of the three groups involved.

    what i decided was that it was worth taking a risk and highlighting apparent contempt for the civil liberties groups.

    if i was wrong i would be quickly corrected, but i’m not one with enough reputation on the line that being corrected for my error would be a career-defacing problem.

    that’s the beauty of being a commenter.

  10. C says:

    @orionATL: Oh I agree with you about the contempt being shown. After the disaster that was the PCLOB hearings where they demanded the “right of rebuttal” against anything the civil libertarians said, I expected this to be bad. I didn’t expect the outright contempt but I agree with you it is there.

    I’m just wondering, given Marissa Meyer’s poor legal reading, whether the tech companies have now moved into CYA mode and want to keep the ACLU outside. Even if they did not propose the separation I find it unlikely that they have enough long-term thought to see how bad it looks for them.

    Personally this is starting to look worse than the PCLOB and starting to look like something that even Obama can’t control.

    If they’re deferring to Clapper for comment then either they don’t care about looking independent anymore. Or they are not in command.

  11. orionATL says:


    i think the tech companies have unquestionably gone into cya mode, or more appropriately, into “cover your growth potential” mode..

    i infer this from meyer’s preposterous, bleating comment that if yahoo didn’t follow a court order it would be “treason”.

    i infer it from zuckerberg’s trivial “the government blew it”.

    neither, nor any of the other tech titans, has put a good argument. nor can they because they never put up a good fight.

  12. GTMO Lawyer says:

    Not a huge point, but because your credibility is so important that even minor errors should be corrected —

    The kiddie table is at 20th AND K Streets NW. Not 20 K Street NW, as your google-map link suggests.

    And it’s not two miles away. 20th and K is about a .6 mile walk from the White House:


  13. C says:

    Yes. Meyer’s choice of language was particularly stupid. Treason is defined in the Constitution. You don’t even need to be a lawyer to see what it is:

    From Article III Section III:

    Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

    Unless she is arguing that everyone caught up in the dragnet is an Enemy of the State or that the American People are enemies of the United States and thus helping us to know what “our” government does is somehow a crime punishable by death.

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