David Dayen: Administration Outside Review Group on NSA Includes Co-Designer of HAMP Peter Swire

By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen

The President announced his “outside experts” for reviewing NSA surveillance policies last week, and everyone had a chuckle about the fact that the “outside experts” are apparently only “outside” in the sense that they no longer work for the President. An outside group featuring former OIRA head, rumored judicial appointment, longtime Obama friend and husband of the current UN Ambassador Cass Sunstein isn’t very outside.

But one nugget of information has gotten lost in all of this. Among the names on that list of four is Peter Swire. He held a technology-related job in the Clinton Administration, where he designed policies for wiretapping in the Internet age. And he does have a history of being critical of civil liberties overreach. He’s signed on to two amicus briefs asking the Supreme Court to review rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court revealed by Edward Snowden, particularly those allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. No less than Marcy Wheeler pronounced herself “happy Swire’s on the list.” In short, he comes with pretty good credentials to be skeptical of the policies.

But what bothers me, and what makes discussion of this appropriate for this website, is what Swire specifically did for the Obama Administration in the first term. It had nothing to do with civil liberties. It had everything to do, ultimately, with showing what a “team player” he would be for the White House.

From early 2009 to the middle of 2010, Swire worked under Larry Summers at the National Economic Council, where he served as the White House “coordinator for inter-agency housing and housing finance policy.” This was perhaps the worst backwater of the Administration in the first term. And if you’re seeing the dates correctly, you get that he basically worked on designing and refining HAMP.

It’s not like Swire didn’t know that giving servicers discretion on things like loan modifications could easily backfire. Swire was a VICTIM of predatory servicing, as his testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in 2011 makes clear. Washington Mutual bought forced-place flood insurance for Swire’s home in Bethesda, Maryland in 2006, despite already having coverage (incidentally, the home was on top of a hill and not in a flood plain). Here’s his explanation:

The basic problem, beginning in early 2006, was that WaMu bought “force placed insurance” – duplicate flood insurance on my house despite the fact
that State Farm repeatedly sent them proof of coverage. In numerous instances, WaMu would impose a “late fee” on my family. We had automatic payment each month for our mortgage payment, and so we were never late on any payment. The WaMu practice, however, was to charge us for flood insurance without telling us, and then declare us “late” for the entire monthly mortgage payment. The next month would also be “late,” and subject to additional fees, because of the second month’s duplicate flood insurance fee.

Swire then thought he had resolved the situation once, only to get more late fees, until ultimately getting them discharged in the way a former government official can with relative ease, at least compared to the general population.

This actually reflects much WORSE on Swire’s work on HAMP. He actually was very knowledgeable about the complete failures of servicing, and he nonetheless had no qualms with designing a program giving servicers every opportunity to screw their customers once again. As inter-agency coordinator he didn’t have the ultimate say over the policy, but as a special assistant to the Preisdent he was certainly the White House’s eyes and ears on the project, and he absolutely could have made a difference if he chose to do so.

To be in that position all the way to August 2010, when the horrors of how servicers used the program as a predatory lending scheme were out in the open, you would have to willingly ignore reality, and sublimate any remorse arising from your role in that debacle. It’s not like Swire quit the NEC in a fit of pique, he just went back to teaching. And he’s left no paper trail of criticism of HAMP or any other Administration housing policy, at least that I’ve encountered. The guy passes himself off as a crusader against faulty servicing while working to design one of the great failures in servicing in history.

These are qualities that will serve him well as part of the outside review group on the NSA. In fact, being a good soldier is probably the main attribute. Swire’s knowledge and experience on civil liberties and privacy issues probably matters as much in this case as his knowledge and experience on housing and consumer protection issues meant to HAMP. He may have the grounds to speak out about surveillance; in isolated circumstances on the review board he may even do it. But he appears to have internalized the concept of omerta enough to do it in such a way that won’t fundamentally change anything that the intelligence community wants to do.

Like anything else, this is a guess, though one borne of observation. Anyone who worked on HAMP and failed to provoke changes or even raise so much as a public objection isn’t my top choice to provoke changes to a review of anything else.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Banking industry, Guest Post, Politics on by .

About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to Salon.com. He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. psychohistorian

    As I read your posting an old Phil Ochs tune came to mind, something about outside of a small circle of friends…….totally different circle of friends but then Phil Ochs committed suicide.

    So Swire used to work for Summers who is going to be the next Fed chairman leading us into prosperity….they are all part of a GREAT team….working against humanity’s interest.

    This reads like a bad movie we can’t seem to find the right ending to…..maybe our coming extinction will provide closure…..did you read about where TEPCO was caught lying again about what is really happening at Fukushima?…the claim that it is a level 3 nuclear incident is galling to say the least.

    1. Schofield

      Somehow this comment has you fantasizing about the need for a truth serum for politicians, bureaucrats and government advisors to detect propensity for sociopathy.

  2. Brad DeLong

    FWIW, when I ran into Peter Swire in Berkeley at a conference at the start of 2011 and talked to him, he was profoundly depressed and discouraged at the failure of HAMP to do any good.

    1. Benedict@Large

      HAMP failed because they let the fox inside of the hen house, and told the fox to design how the hen house worked. Would that have been Swire’s complaint? Or did he not understand this was the case? Because during the left econ bloggers’ meeting with Treasury (which included Yves and Geithner, it was pretty clear that Treasury at least was pleased with how HAMP had worked out.

  3. Benedict@Large

    So the system has so much power, and being part of that power is so attractive that it can corrupt even those with every reason to know better. You have to get inside to fix things, but you can’t get inside unless you prove you’re willing to break them.

    Kind of just tells you it’s time to throw your hands up in despair, and wait for the Armageddon.

    1. damian

      The Washington Post wrote the following a couple of days ago:
      The Obama administration is reportedly proposing Cass Sunstein as a member of a panel to review the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency (NSA), among other former White House and intelligence staffers. Sunstein was the head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs until last year, when he returned to teaching at Harvard Law School.

      While at Harvard in 2008, Sunstein co-authored a working paper that suggests government agents or their allies “cognitively infiltrate” conspiracy theorist groups by joining ”chat rooms, online social networks or even real-space groups” and influencing the conversation.

  4. Robin Hood

    Swire’s as good as could be hoped for. He likes being close to power far too much to do anything to jeopardize his access, however.

    1. Michael Froomkin

      I’ve known Peter a long long time, so I’m biased. We haven’t talked about this at all, but I do think that he’s the sort of person who will understand this as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis and rise to the occasion. Not perhaps to the point of being rude in public, but to the point of fighting very hard in private.

      The bigger issue is that he’s outnumbered.

Comments are closed.