The NSA Meeting Everyone Wants to Attend But Nobody Will Talk About

The first rule of NSA reform meetings at the White House: Don’t talk about NSA reform meetings at the White House.

Obama promised at his end-year press conference last month to have a "pretty definitive statment" on NSA surveillance reform in January.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 8, 2014, 7:49 a.m.

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.

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