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Obama calls for outside review of NSA intelligence collection

President Barack Obama bowed to public concerns over US government data collection today.

By Staff writer / August 12, 2013

President Obama has tasked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, seen here at a March 2013 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, with reviewing what exactly US intelligence has been up to.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Ring up a victory for Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. Maybe.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Whatever the accuracy of the claims of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Snowden and Greenwald, the columnist through whom he's carried out most of his leaks over the past few months, the storm of outrage over allegations that NSA intelligence collection frequently targets the phone calls and emails of US citizens has gotten the attention of President Barack Obama.

Today, Obama ordered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to name an outside panel to review the United State's global collection of signals intelligence - meaning its efforts to target phone calls, internet messages, and various forms of electronic communication.

While the letter appears to focus on the risk of leaks and counter-intelligence by enemies, more than on concerns that the Constitution is being violated by NSA dragnets, it's clear that Obama is worried about the backlash.

"Recent years have brought unprecedented and rapid advancements in communications technologies, particularly with respect to global telecommunications," his letter to Clapper reads. "These technological advances have brought with them both great opportunities and significant risks for our Intelligence Community: opportunity in the form of enhanced technical capabilities that can more precisely and readily identify threats to our security, and risks in the form of insider and cyber threats

I believe it is important to take stock of how these technological advances alter the environment in which we conduct our intelligence mission. To this end, by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I am directing you to establish a Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies (Review Group)."

Obama's focus appears to be on stopping leaks like Snowden's – what he calls "unauthorized disclosures" – but also makes a nod towards public concern about US intelligence targeting of citizens, with a brief comment about the "need to maintain the public trust."

The proof of the pudding will obviously be in the eating. Obama has asked for a review group to be named by Clapper to brief him, via the DNI, within 60 days and to provide a final report and recommendations by Dec. 15 of this year. Who these people are, and where they decide to place their emphasis, will have a lot to do with their findings.

It's possible that they will be overwhelmingly focused on securing US government secrets – but Obama's mention of public trust implies that their tasking will at least require some consideration of the constitutional issues and the politics of US government surveillance on citizens.

On the other hand, Clapper has not exactly developed a reputation for candor when testifying before Congress, and since he'll oversee the details of this review, it could be more of the same.

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