When a president comes face to face with something painful and difficult, demanding his leadership, his first instinct is to toss it to a committee, usually called “a task force,” which suggests urgency and no nonsense. Presidents like this solution because it carries no risk that he will actually have to do anything. Imagine the surprise this week at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when the president’s handpicked “review group” of government insiders produced a 300-page report that concluded the government’s snooping is out of hand.
The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies actually recommended that Congress pull the plug on the program that allows the National Security Agency to gather the communications of all Americans, not just those suspected of terrorism. “In our view,” the report explained, “the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty.”
The panelists ask Congress to curtail the authority of the agencies to issue national-security letters requiring telephone companies and Internet-service providers to hand over information without judicial review. The panel asks that such requests be made public, ending the current orders that gag everyone involved. The committee recommends “highest-level approval” be required for any surveillance efforts targeting foreign leaders. That means Mr. Obama would no longer be able to feign ignorance when Angela Merkel complains that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on her private telephone calls.
The recommendations, encouraging as they are, aren’t worth the recycled paper they’re printed on unless Congress acts. We’re not holding our breath. Congress frightens easily, and congressmen will never willingly touch an issue on which they might be held responsible. The unforgivable sin of these presidential panelists is that they hit the ball into Mr. Obama’s court. He isn’t interested in doing anything, either.
In fact, Mr. Obama did his best to rig the outcome to preserve the status quo. Instead of inviting outside watchdogs, who might bite, to serve on the panel and take a hard look at what the government is doing, he tapped surveillance-state insiders. There’s no louder cheerleader for government snooping than Richard A. Clarke, a national-security consultant to several presidents, who pushed for centralized government snooping powers long before the attacks of 9/11. Michael J. Morell is deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Cass Sunstein was Mr. Obama’s regulatory czar. Peter Swire was Bill Clinton’s privacy adviser and one of Mr. Obama’s first-term economic advisers. Impressive credentials, but not those of men who could be expected to rock the boat.
But this time they rocked it, ever so gently. Mr. Obama is counting now that the public will pay no attention; nothing should get in the way of Christmas shopping. That’s not likely to happen as long as Edward Snowden is the loose. The former NSA contractor ignited the debate with his document leaks, and he’s keeping the story alive with new revelations every week. In a letter submitted to a Brazilian newspaper the other day, Mr. Snowden defended himself with eloquence. “There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement — where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion,” he wrote, “and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever.”
Mr. Snowden says it was worth surrendering his passport to enable the public to know what their government is doing. If Mr. Obama wants this issue to go away, he will have to take charge of it.