Analysis: The DNI civil rights switcheroo

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Aug. 8, 2006 at 2:21 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- The ACLU was one of the organizations that successfully campaigned for an office for civil liberties and privacy within the new structure that Congress gave U.S. intelligence in its huge overhaul in 2004. But they probably never imagined that one of their top lobbyists would quit to go work there.

Tim Edgar, formerly a senior legislative counsel at the ACLU's Washington office started work last month as the deputy civil liberties protection officer in the office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.

He is one of a three-person civil liberties and privacy team headed by Alexander Joel, who quit a lucrative private sector job after the Sept. 11 attacks because "we all needed to do something for the country" and went to work in the CIA general counsel's office. Negroponte appointed Joel last year to the new civil liberties post, a product of the same huge 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that created Negroponte's own job.

Joel says that not everyone welcomed the idea of hiring an ACLU lawyer. "I expected a mixed reaction and that's what I got," he told United Press International in a recent interview. "By-and-large Tim has been warmly received," he said.

"There were some questions about whether he understood the shift in culture" he would be making, acknowledged Joel, citing a couple of remarks along the lines of "Does he really know where he's coming?"

Edgar himself said the main culture shift he had experienced was one that would apply to anyone making the leap from outside advocate to government insider. "You're here to participate in a deliberative process (of making policy) and hopefully have your voice heard in a way you wouldn't as an advocate.

"The price you pay for that of course is you don't (take part in) a public debate," he told UPI.

Former fellow-campaigners from the civil liberties lobby were -- at best -- cautious about Edgar's prospects.

His appointment "shows commendable broad-mindedness on the part of the director of national intelligence," said government transparency campaigner Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. "Will (he) do more good for civil liberties within the government than he did on the outside? I don't know."

Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies declined to comment on Edgar directly, noting that, since Joel's appointment, "Negroponte has filed affidavits in several of the pending court challenges to the (National Security Agency's program of) warrantless surveillance, seeking to shut down all court review of that surveillance on the grounds of state secrets privilege."

As a result, she concluded "there is no reason to believe that the civil liberties office ... will have any significant impact on the administration's actions."

Even Edgar's former colleagues at the ACLU were not much more generous.

Caroline Frederickson said the ACLU "wished him well," but added it was "unfortunate that the position had so little influence."

"He doesn't have much room to run," she said, calling the office "window dressing" and "neutered."

"I hope he can have an impact," she concluded, but the statutory powers the office had would make that a steep hill to climb.

Edgar himself said that he has been impressed by "how dedicated many of the professionals who work in (U.S. intelligence agencies) are to the bedrock protections," for civil liberties contained in the Constitution and in statutes like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which many argue is breached by the administration's warrantless surveillance program.

"In their day-to-day work, people do want to be on the right side of that line (of constitutionality and legality), and they're looking for this office to help keep them the right side of that line," he said.

In part, there was a fear of public controversy. "The last thing anyone wants is for their program to be on the front pages ... a poster child" for the civil liberties issue. Edgar said that caution "reflects an understanding (in the agencies) that if they don't proceed carefully they're going to get themselves in serious trouble."

That is more than just wishful thinking on his part. Several former intelligence officials have told UPI in recent months that some of their still-serving colleagues are growing increasingly concerned about the legal territory they have been left occupying by the administration's very aggressive interpretation of presidential prerogatives.

Joel explained Edgar's value to the office as something akin to a miner's canary -- flagging up potential problems before they became the center of a public conflagration.

"People welcomed the opportunity ... to internalize upfront" the civil liberties perspective that Edgar brought, "and use that perspective as early as possible in our programs and I think it's been extremely helpful," he said.

But he declined to give details. "Like the job of the rest of the intelligence (agencies)," he said, "Ours can be a thankless task. If we succeed, there will not be a problem ... The program will proceed in a way that won't raise any kinds of civil liberties concerns. That's our goal."

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