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8 Oct, 2013 21:01

NSA spying continues while oversight stopped by shutdown

NSA spying continues while oversight stopped by shutdown

A review panel established by the White House to assess the country’s intelligence programs is due to report its findings to the president this Friday. Days before deadline, though, that board has become a voluntary casualty of the government shutdown.

President Barack Obama announced in August that the unauthorized disclosure of national security documents and the subsequent discussions it sparked warranted the creation of an independent panel, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

The Review Group will assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the United States employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust,” the president said two months ago.

Practically one week before a 60-day deadline to deliver a report to the White House, however, the group has put itself on ice. Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Mike Allen reported over the weekend that one member of the five-personal panel — former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Morell — decided to pull the plug on the board until the government shutdown that started last Tuesday morning comes to a close.

I simply thought that it was inappropriate for our group to continue working while the vast majority of the men and women of the intelligence community are being forced to remain off the job,” Morell told Politico on Saturday. “While the work we’re doing is important, it is no more important than - and quite frankly a lot less important - than a lot of the work being left undone by the government shutdown, both in the intelligence community and outside the intelligence community.”

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence (Mark Wilson / Getty Images / AFP)

How could this be more important than kids starting cancer trials at NIH?”Morell asked the DC-based news outlet, referring to another government program that was put on hold when the federal shutdown started last week.

On day two of the shutdown last Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers at a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act oversight hearing that he couldn’t guarantee the safety of the American people amid the shutdown, as furloughs caused roughly 70 percent of the US intelligence community’s civilian workforce to be shuttered until the government is up and running again.

During that same hearing, Clapper said that leaked national security documents — a whole trove that has steadily been circulated among the media by former contractor Edward Snowden starting this past June — has jeopardized the safety of the US as well.

People’s lives are at risk here because of data that Mr. Snowden purloined,” Clapper said.

But whereas the commander-in-chief created a review panel to see if the programs publicized by Mr. Snowden should be scaled back, 100 percent of that board is on break while the intelligence community continues to operate, at least in part. Although Clapper said that 70 percent of the intelligence community’s civilian workers were furloughed as of last week, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander testified to Congress that only around 6,000 NSA employees had been sent home.

According to the Washington Post’s estimate, that means only around 15 percent of the NSA has actually been furloughed, leaving maybe 30,000 or so employees on the job.

The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies has until this Friday to provide their interim findings to Pres. Obama through DNI Clapper, who has been tasked by the White House to facilitate the panel’s operations. News of Clapper’s alleged role within the board raised concern last month after it was reported that the majority of the five-person panel, originally described by Obama himself as “independent” of the White House, is composed of former administration officials and/or influential Democrats.

The group’s final report and recommendations —should they finally convene in time in lieu of the shutdown — is due to the DNI and White House by December 15.