Capitol Hill is holding its own version of Fight Club Wednesday, as a small number of hand-picked intelligence staffers are descending on the White House this afternoon for a top-secret meeting to talk about government surveillance reform.
No one appears to know exactly what the meeting will entail or whether the administration will unveil any offerings about restricting the National Security Administration’s much-maligned telephone and Internet data-gathering techniques. And attendees are being warned to not divulge any of the sensitive information after the huddle-up, continuing a trend of keeping NSA reform talks in the shadows even as critics deride the government for failing to be more transparent about the agency’s surveillance activities.
The Situation Room meeting, ahead of an even more tightly guarded one between President Obama and select lawmakers Thursday morning in the Oval Office, has a TS/SCI (top secret/sensitive compartmented information) clearance ranking, meaning the conversation is highly classified. As recently as Wednesday morning, some intelligence staffers said they were unclear exactly who had been extended an invitation or if they would even be allowed in the room.
The meetings come as Obama is signaling an interest in announcing some level of reform measures before his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28. Any restrictions on NSA surveillance would be the first since revelations of the agency’s sweeping domestic and international data-gathering programs began surfacing.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Obama had given his surveillance review task force’s recommendation “a great deal of consideration” and reviewed its report during his Hawaii vacation.
Obama “has instituted a review about the NSA procedures and broader issues that encompasses both the review group as well as other elements,” Carney said. “We know with confidence that the president will have made some decisions about which recommendations he wants to implement, which require further review, and which we will not implement, and you will hear him discuss those issues later this month.”
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Obama intends to present a package deal that would concede to some of the 46 recommendations released recently by the president’s hand-picked five-member intelligence review board. Big-ticket changes could include placing a public advocate within the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and removing the government’s direct control of the NSA’s telephone metadata records. Instead, the database could be maintained by telephone companies or by some other, as-yet undefined, entity.
But privacy advocates remain skeptical that Obama intends to make any serious changes to the NSA, as he reupped his defense of bulk telephone and Internet metadata collection at his year-end press conference last month as a “useful tool … to ensure that if we have a thread on a potential terrorist threat, that that can be followed effectively.”
Obama’s schedule this week also includes a meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. In addition, some technology groups have been invited to the White House for a follow-up to Obama’s meeting in December with high-wattage technology executives.