The White House has moved to dampen controversy over the role of the director of national intelligence James Clapper in a panel reviewing NSA surveillance, insisting that he would neither lead it nor choose the members.
Statements by Barack Obama and Clapper on Monday night were widely interpreted as the director of national intelligence being placed in charge of the inquiry, which the president had announced on Friday would be “independent”.
The apparent involvement of Clapper, who has admitted lying to Congress over NSA surveillance of US citizens, provoked a backlash, with critics accusing the president of putting a fox in charge of the hen house.
But the White House national security council insisted on Tuesday that Clapper’s role would be more limited.
“The panel members are being selected by the White House, in consultation with the intelligence community,” national security council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
The DNI had to be involved for administrative reasons, because the panel would need security clearance and access to classified material, she added.
After the White House and the Pentagon released their statements saying Clapper had been asked by Obama to “establish” the panel and report its findings, media outlets reported this to mean Clapper heading the panel and choosing the members.
Republican congressman Justin Amash, who led a revolt that narrowly failed in its effort to cut NSA funding, tweeted: “Pres Obama believes man who lied to public in congressional hearing about NSA should lead NSA review process meant to build public trust”.
Clapper apologised last month for misleading a Senate hearing by denying that the NSA collects information about millions of Americans.
In response to leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Obama announced at a press conference on Friday that an independent panel of outsiders would be set up to investigate concerns about the scale of NSA surveillance.
The president appeared to backtrack on Monday evening when he said he was directing Clapper “to establish a review group on intelligence and communications technologies” that would brief and later report to the president through Clapper by December.
Clapper, in a separate statement, echoed this but described the investigatory body as “the director of national intelligence review group on intelligence and communications technology”.
Timothy Lee, writing in the Washington Post, said: “The announcement doesn’t inspire confidence that the president is interested in truly independent scrutiny of the nation’s surveillance programs. The panel will be chosen by, and report to, director of national intelligence James Clapper.”
But on Tuesday the White House repeated Obama’s promise that the panel would be independent and contain outsiders. It described media reports of Monday’s statements by Obama and Clapper as inaccurate. “I can confirm we are not backtracking on what the president announced,” said Hayden.
She added that the panel members woul be appointed soon.
“The panel will not report to the DNI. As the DNI’s statement yesterday made clear, the review group will brief its interim findings to the president within 60 days of its establishment, and provide a final report with recommendations no later than December 15 2013.”
She added: “As we announced on Friday, the review group will be made up of independent, outside experts. The DNI’s role is one of facilitation, and the group is not under the direction of or led by the DNI.
“The members require security clearances and access to classified information so they need to be administratively connected to the government, and the DNI’s office is the right place to provide that. The review process and findings will be the group’s.”
One of the US senators who has led the challenge to NSA domestic surveillance, Ron Wyden, said he hoped that the creation of what he described as an independent board would be one part of ensuring that the security and civil liberties of American are protected.
In an email to the Guardian, Wyden, a Democrat, said: “That board must be able to take an unbiased look at intelligence gathering and surveillance practices, so that the Congress and the public can be confident that an honest and straightforward review is taking place.”
He added: “It is my hope that DNI Clapper will take just such an approach to establishing this review panel, because anything less will do little to improve the confidence the public has in the intelligence community.”
Wyden was the senator to whom Clapper admitted giving an “erroneous” answer at a Senate hearing about the extent of domestic surveillance.
Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, who specialises in national security and transparency, said: “We hope Clapper constructs a panel with a diversity of views and expertise. He needs to look outside the immediate intelligence community that has been creating and operating these programs over the years.
She added: “It was disappointing to see that the DNI’s press release didn’t even mention privacy or the constitution.”