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
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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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