The White House Intelligence Review Will Come by Year’s End

Expect Obama administration officials to punt on new NSA disclosures until that time.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Oct. 28, 2013, 10:37 a.m.

The United States is re­view­ing the way it gath­ers in­tel­li­gence. This has now be­come a tired and oft-re­peated phrase com­ing from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, as dis­clos­ures con­tin­ue to re­veal the far-reach­ing ex­tent to which the U.S. spies on its al­lies.

The latest, ground­break­ing leak: the U.S. has been mon­it­or­ing Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s cell phone for more than 10 years.

While U.S. of­fi­cials have been summoned to ex­plain them­selves to dif­fer­ent European lead­ers — Spain be­ing the latest — aides to Pres­id­ent Obama, from press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney to Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, have said there is cur­rently a re­view un­der­way to de­term­ine where the Amer­ic­an spy­ing pro­gram should go in the com­ing years.

But fi­nally, there’s a sense of when ex­actly the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will re­lease de­tails of this re­view: by the end of the year, ac­cord­ing to Car­ney.

Speak­ing on Monday, Car­ney was vague about the cur­rent re­view and said he would not spe­cific­ally ad­dress the latest dis­clos­ures from Ed­ward Snowden. Still, Car­ney said there’s already been pro­gress as the U.S. con­tem­plates spy­ing agree­ments with some of its al­lies, in­clud­ing Ger­many.

“Even as that work is be­ing done, some de­cisions have been made that re­flect the pres­id­ent felt de­sire to find the prop­er bal­ance,” Car­ney said at his daily press brief­ing.

There are cur­rently two re­views on­go­ing. One is with­in the White House, run out of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, which is what Car­ney is ref­er­en­cing. The oth­er is an out­side group, con­sist­ing of mem­bers that were ap­poin­ted by Pres­id­ent Obama — in­clud­ing the former act­ing dir­ect­or of the CIA, Mike Mo­rell, and Cass Sun­stein, the hus­band of U.N. Am­bas­sad­or Sam­antha Power and former head of the White House Of­fice of In­form­a­tion and Reg­u­lat­ory Af­fairs.

White House of­fi­cials have in­sisted that Obama did not know about many of these in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing prac­tices, in­clud­ing the tap­ping of Merkel’s phone. While the pres­id­ent re­ceives a daily in­tel­li­gence brief­ing, former of­fi­cials have noted that the sources of the in­tel­li­gence are not nor­mally giv­en to the pres­id­ent dir­ectly, but in­stead to aides.

Still, this has launched a de­bate in Wash­ing­ton about wheth­er the team that Obama sur­rounds him­self with is be­ing forth­right enough for him to do his job prop­erly.

For the last sev­er­al weeks, as re­port­ers have houn­ded the White House for de­tails about the U.S. in­tel­li­gence pro­gram, of­fi­cials con­tin­ue to re­peat the same phrase over and over again. Here are some ex­amples:

  • Readout of Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s meet­ing with Itali­an Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Pietro Grasso on Oct. 25: “The vice pres­id­ent made clear that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­view­ing the way that we gath­er in­tel­li­gence to en­sure that we prop­erly bal­ance pro­tect­ing the se­cur­ity con­cerns of our cit­izens and al­lies with the pri­vacy con­cerns that all people share.”
  • Car­ney on Oct. 23: “The U.S. is re­view­ing the way that we gath­er in­tel­li­gence to en­sure that we prop­erly bal­ance the se­cur­ity con­cerns of our cit­izens and al­lies with the pri­vacy con­cerns that all people share.”
  • Readout of Obama’s call with Merkel on Oct. 23: “As the pres­id­ent has said, the United States is re­view­ing the way that we gath­er in­tel­li­gence to en­sure that we prop­erly bal­ance the se­cur­ity con­cerns of our cit­izens and al­lies with the pri­vacy con­cerns that all people share.”
  • Kerry on Oct. 21 in Par­is: “As Pres­id­ent Obama said very clearly in a re­cent speech that he gave at the United Na­tions Gen­er­al As­sembly just a few weeks ago, he said we in the United States are cur­rently re­view­ing the way that we gath­er in­tel­li­gence.”
  • Obama on Sept. 24 be­fore the United Na­tions: “And just as we re­viewed how we de­ploy our ex­traordin­ary mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies in a way that lives up to our ideals, we’ve be­gun to re­view the way that we gath­er in­tel­li­gence, so that we prop­erly bal­ance the le­git­im­ate se­cur­ity con­cerns of our cit­izens and al­lies with the pri­vacy con­cerns that all people share.”

Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice even tweeted this on Monday:

Our re­view of the way we gath­er in­tel­li­gence is rig­or­ous and on­go­ing.

— Susan Rice (@Am­bas­sad­or­Rice) Oc­to­ber 28, 2013

Now that we know the re­view will come at the end of the year, will it stop the ques­tions that bring on this tired phrase?

Ab­so­lutely not.

Journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald, who said that there are still thou­sands of U.S. in­tel­li­gence doc­u­ments that he has not pub­lished, will con­tin­ue to dis­close in­form­a­tion about NSA pro­grams. And each time that he will pub­lish de­tails about these pro­grams, journ­al­ists will press the White House to con­firm the re­ports. And each time, Car­ney will again say, “The U.S. is re­view­ing the way that we gath­er in­tel­li­gence.”

So, ex­pect this tired talk­ing point for an­oth­er two months.

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