Liberties oversight panel gets short shrift

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President Obama is coming under pressure from Democrats and civil liberties groups for failing to fill positions on an oversight panel formed in 2004 to make sure the government does not spy improperly on U.S. citizens.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was recommended initially by the bipartisan September 11 commission as an institutional voice for privacy inside the intelligence community. Its charter was to recommend ways to mitigate the effects of far-reaching surveillance technology that the federal government uses to track terrorists.

The panel was established in 2004 under the Bush administration as part of the executive office of the president. Its independence was unclear for several years. Congress responded by increasing the board’s budget, expanding its powers and moving it outside the presidential executive office in 2007.

Since taking office, Mr. Obama has allowed the board to languish. He has not even spent the panel’s allocation from the fiscal 2010 budget.

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On Friday, two leading Democrats — Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Jane Harman of California, chairman of that panel’s subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment — sent a letter to Mr. Obama demanding action.

“We write to urge you to appoint individuals to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board immediately. Your FY2010 budget appropriates funds for this board, but it remains unfulfilled,” the lawmakers wrote.

The two Democrats noted that previous letters to Mr. Obama, including one from Mrs. Harman and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, “remain unanswered.”

The lawmakers said the need for the oversight panel is particularly urgent in light of proposed changes to terrorist-screening rules at airports after the attempted Christmas Day attack on a Northwest jet bound for Detroit.

“Given the recent events of December 25, 2009, and the prospective policy changes that will be made subsequent to this incident, including potential expansion of watch lists and widespread use of body-scanning technology, we believe that the Board will give an anxious public confidence that appropriate rights are respected,” the lawmakers wrote.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, defended the administration’s record in general but acknowledged the Democrats’ criticisms and said the White House would soon act on them.

“This president has made clear his commitment to civil liberties through the actions of his administration, and appreciates the congressional interest in this important issue. The White House has allocated funding for the civil liberties board, and looks forward to appointing its leadership soon,” he said.

Mr. Thompson and Mrs. Harman are not alone. Last week, the two former chairmen of the September 11 commission, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, also urged Mr. Obama to staff the civil liberties panel.

“You need somebody out here in the government that is checking everything that is done with regard to security, and asking themselves, can it be done better with a little more respect for privacy and civil liberties?” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a Democrat who was chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

Mr. Hamilton said that “if you have an argument today in the [intelligence] bureaucracy between the security people and the civil liberties people, I’ll tell you who’s going to win the argument. It’ll be the security people every time.”

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