WASHINGTON -- Stung by public unease about new details of spying by the National Security Agency, President Barack Obama selected a panel of advisers he described as independent experts to scrutinize the NSA's surveillance programs to be sure they weren't violating civil liberties and to restore Americans' trust.
But with just weeks remaining before its first deadline to report back to the White House, the review panel has effectively been operating as an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and all other U.S. spy efforts.
The panel's advisers work in offices on loan from the DNI. Interview requests and press statements from the review panel are carefully coordinated through the DNI's press office. James Clapper, the intelligence director, exempted the panel from U.S. rules that require federal committees to conduct their business and their meetings in ways the public can observe. Its final report, when it's issued, will be submitted for White House approval before the public can read it.
Its meetings in recent weeks with technology industry and privacy groups have been closed to the public even though no classified information was discussed, according to participants.
"No one can look at this group and say it's completely independent," said one attendee, Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute and vice president at the New America Foundation. Mr. Meinrath said the closed meetings "leave the public out of the loop."
The formal White House memorandum days later -- effectively the legal charter for the group -- does not specify anything about its role being independent of the Obama administration. It directed the panel to emphasize in its review whether U.S. spying programs protect national security, advance foreign policy and are protected against the types of leaks that led to the national debate in the first place.
Four of the five review panel members previously worked for Democratic administrations: Peter Swire, former Office of Management and Budget privacy director under President Bill Clinton; Michael Morell, Obama's former deputy CIA director; Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism coordinator under Clinton and later for President George W. Bush; and Cass Sunstein, Obama's former regulatory czar. A fifth panel member, Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago, leads a university committee looking to build Mr. Obama's presidential library in Chicago and was an informal adviser to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
"We would have liked a more diverse group," said Michelle Richardson, an ACLU legislative counsel who attended one meeting for civil liberties groups.
Mr. Obama has said in recent comments that he might be open to setting up public advocates who could oppose government lawyers at secret federal surveillance court proceedings -- similar to a proposal by Swire in 2004. But the administration has otherwise backed the surveillance programs as essential for national security.
Participants in one session held for the technology industry included lawyers and other figures from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and Apple -- firms that reportedly have worked with the NSA in surveillance operations. No phone company executives attended, participants said. Technology executives pressed for more authority to tell computer users their private data is not being abused by the government, said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Neither session, according to participants, gave any hint of changes under consideration.