A panel President Barack Obama set up in August to assess the government’s use of surveillance technologies hit some turbulence related to the government shutdown last week and found itself effectively frozen on Friday after its staff was furloughed, according to a person briefed on the panel’s operations.

The five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was set to meet last Tuesday with the top leaders of Congress’s intelligence committees, the source said. However, Review Group member Michael Morell-who stepped down in August as director of the Central Intelligence Agency-declined to take part, arguing that the panel shouldn’t be pressing on while much of the intelligence community’s workforce was staying home.

“I simply thought that it was inappropriate for our group to continue working while the vast majority of the men and women of the intelligence community are being forced to remain off the job,” Morell said Saturday in response to a query from POLITICO. “While the work we’re doing is important, it is no more important than – and quite frankly a lot less important – than a lot of the work being left undone by the government shutdown, both in the intelligence community and outside the intelligence community.”

“How could this be more important than kids starting cancer trials at NIH?” Morell asked.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to decry the fact that 72 percent of civilians who work at intelligence agencies had been furloughed as a result of the government shutdown. The furloughs were the subject of extensive discussion at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing the following day, where several Republican members floated proposals to provide stopgap funding for intelligence agencies even as other agencies remained shuttered. Democrats generally argued that funding for the entire government should be restored immediately.

The Review Group’s meeting with Congressional leaders on Tuesday went forward without Morell. Feinstein and the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, attended the session, according to a Senate aide. House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) also took part, a House aide confirmed.

Morell said part of his decision to bow out last week was driven by the desire not to distract members of Congress and their staff from what he believes should be their No. 1 priority. “I just firmly felt Congress should be focused on one thing and one thing only, which is ending the shutdown,” he said.

The Office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which is facilitating the review group’s work, initially determined that the board and its staff could keep going through the shutdown, the person briefed on the situation said. However, on Friday, the DNI’s office reversed course and said the panel’s staff had to be furloughed, the source said.

Panel members-who are unpaid-can in theory, continue to discuss the issues they’re exploring, but the funds to pay for travel to Washington are now frozen.

The review group was operating under a deadline to provide an initial report to Obama within 60 days of beginning its work and to present a final report by Dec. 15. It’s unclear whether those deadlines will need to be adjusted because of the funding hiatus.

A White House spokeswoman referred questions to Clapper’s office, which did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Another outside panel exploring similar issues, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, also saw its work interrupted last week because of the shutdown.

The PCLOB initially said it planned to use “carry-over funding” to press forward with a major public hearing Friday on proposals for changes to some of the surveillance programs revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. However, on Wednesday, the board said it was postponing the session because “a significant number of witnesses” were unable to appear “due to the federal government lapse in appropriations.” The PCLOB did say it planned to “remain in operation” using funding that could be carried over into the new fiscal year.

Clapper said Wednesday that about 70 percent of the intelligence community’s civilian workforce was under furlough, but he said the number would probably decrease over time. The Pentagon announced Saturday that it would begin recalling some civilian employees as soon as Monday under a law designed to limit the impact of the shutdown on the military, the Pay Our Military Act.

The legislation is not expected to reduce furloughs outside the Defense Department, but a spokesman said Sunday that the NSA-which is considered part of DoD-should be able to end some of its furloughs soon as a result of the measure.

“Intelligence is an approved function to recall DoD civilians under the Pay Our Military Act, and we would expect the NSA would be able to recall many of theirs,” said Navy Commander Bill Urban. “The NSA will analyze the guidance and make specific determinations in the coming days.”

By Press TV

 

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