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Marcy Wheeler: Government promoting surveillance advocate to oversight panel raises question if its more concerned with repairing its image or surveillance oversight

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

ABC News is reporting the White House has chosen Cass Sunstein, an outspoken supporter of secret government surveillance, to be part of a committee that will review the NSA’s surveillance programs. The panel will be led by former acting CIA head Mike Morell and include former Homeland Security czar Richard Clarke and former Obama special assistant for economic policy Peter Swire.

Now joining us to talk more about this is Marcy Wheeler. Marcy writes on national security and civil liberties at her site She just wrote the piece “Advocate of Secret Infiltration, Cass Sunstein, on Obama’s ‘Committee to Make Us Trust the Dragnet’”.

Thank you so much for joining us, Marcy.


NOOR: So, Marcy, this panel was formed in light of the revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the subsequent public and now congressional outcry at what many consider the NSA overstepping its mandate and even the FISA courts in the surveillance it’s conducting domestically and internationally as well. What can you tell us about Cass Sunstein and his background?

WHEELER: Cass Sunstein is currently a Harvard law professor. Obama loves Harvard law professors. He is also the spouse of Samantha Power, who is the ambassador to the UN. And he used to be the White House’s–it’s called OIRA, but it’s basically a role to review rules to figure out whether they’re going to be effective or onerous. And in his case, he often was slammed for being too concerned about whether rules were going to be onerous for businesses. So he only recently, a year ago, basically, left the White–slightly over a year, I think, left the White House. So he’s also fairly recently been part of the White House.

NOOR: And you cite a piece by Glenn Greenwald where he criticized a paper Sunstein wrote at Harvard Law School in 2008, where he argues to cognitively infiltrate electronic communications to debunk ideas and theories critical of the government. Can you tell us more about this paper Sunstein wrote and why this is relevant today?

WHEELER: Yeah. The paper set out to figure out how conspiracy theories form and what the government can do about them. And significantly, he said that, you know, when people have conspiracy theories about terrorism–and he was–his examples in the paper are largely focused on 9/11–then it has some bad effect for terrorism. He doesn’t really explain that point very well. And so, ultimately he talks a little bit about how conspiracy theories are born and then argues that the government should try and break up groups who spread conspiracy theories by basically infiltrating them, by either explicitly with people who announce their ties to government going in and trying to rebut them, or to classically infiltrate them, to go in and not tell people that they are doing so and try and question their facts and so on in places like, say, Twitter.

NOOR: And it seems like this is a tactic the government, and specifically FBI, is increasingly willing to use against groups that it deems anti-patriotic or it sees as a threat to the country.

WHEELER: Well, and we’ve seen it since the Snowden leaks started where people who–you know, people were trying to brand Snowden is a defector, people were trying to question the claims he made, or they were trying to discredit him, discredit Glenn Greenwald. They’ve also repeatedly tried to say, oh, these stories aren’t based in fact, and here’s my x, y, and z data. And that’s all great. But oftentimes they are not particularly well argued or they, you know, make errors on the facts.

And you hear, every time the government comes out to talk about these NSA programs–in fact, yesterday, the director of national intelligence rolled out a Tumblr site called ICON–it’s supposed to be IC on the Record. We joke that it’s I Con the Record. But, you know, they said, here’s where you can come for facts, suggesting that if you go to The Guardian or The Washington Post, you’re going to get something that isn’t the facts. Problem is, you know, every time they roll out these documents, we learn more and more about the deceit and misrepresentations of the government.

And so, you know, that Cass Sunstein has made this argument for infiltrating social media to rebut theories I think is particularly interesting in this case because the–I can’t say it anymore–the I Con–the intelligence community is trying so obviously to fight back against what is factually based concerns about the NSA’s spying.

NOOR: And you argue that the reason behind this panel that’s being convened by the White House is not to actually review the programs to see if they protect privacy and are law-abiding, but to actually rebuild the public’s trust, which has been seriously damaged by this, the revelations, as you just mentioned, that Snowden has made and how the government, and specifically James Clapper, has some been shown to be lying to Congress on several occasions.

WHEELER: Yeah, Clapper’s lied to Congress. General Alexander from the NSA has lied publicly to people like Black Hat and DEF CON and AEI. So part of the problem the administration has is the people they keep rolling out to say, oh, this program is great, have repeatedly been demonstrated to have lied.

But, yeah, Obama rolled out this committee a week ago–I mean, sorry, two weeks ago tomorrow. And when he first announced it, he did mention privacy as one of the goals. He also said that he wanted to make sure it wasn’t affecting our foreign policy. I forget whether he originally said he wanted to cut down on leaks.

But then the following Monday he issued an executive order, and basically ordering James Clapper to set up this committee, which was hysterical, ’cause, again, James Clapper has already lied to Congress, and that privacy language dropped out. So whereas on Friday, when the president was making public statements, it was at least partly about privacy, by Monday it was about making sure there were no leakers and explicitly to make sure that the American people have trust in the NSA program.

So, you know, Senator Wyden has argued in the past that we should have a technological committee review all of the NSA programs to see if we can do it better and more privacy protective. That’s originally what I thought this committee was going to be. But it’s–you know, given the makeup of the committee, it’s clear–and given some of the things that Obama and James Clapper have said about it, it seems more intent on making us comfortable with the spying.

NOOR: Marcy Wheeler, thank you so much for joining us.

WHEELER: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: And you can check out Marcy’s work at

Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Marcy Wheeler is a national security reporter and author. Her website is Empty Wheel.