Privacy board springs to life after NSA revelations

A small federal panel that oversees privacy issues has been catapulted from a bureaucratic backwater into the political maelstrom roiled by leaks about the National Security Agency’s domestic snooping.

For most of the nine years since President George W. Bush signed the legislation creating it, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board did not have any members, let alone an office or staff.

It took 510 days — nearly 18 months ending in May — for the Senate to confirm the chairman, former Federal Trade Commission official David Medine.

But within a week of the full five-member board’s meeting that month — the first in almost six years — newspapers published details about the NSA’s domestic data collection programs and documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“The first Snowden leak happened during my second full week [as chairman],” Mr. Medine said.

The following week, the board met with President Obama in the White House Situation Room. “The timing made things, let’s say, interesting,” the chairman said.

Over the summer, in the face of growing public skepticism about the utility and legality of the NSA programs, Mr. Obama turned to the privacy board to help restore Americans’ faith in the federal government’s most secretive agencies. He made an inquiry by the board a key step in responding to the Snowden leaks.

“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Mr. Obama said Aug. 9, announcing the board’s inquiry. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”

An independent agency

Created in 2004 as a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, the privacy board was reconstituted three years later in a legislative reform package.

Mr. Medine said the board is “working diligently” on a study of the NSA programs. The panel’s members, who all have top-secret clearances, have been briefed in detail on the agency’s data-gathering and surveillance activities and have visited NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland, he said.

The panel also has held public hearings where members questioned intelligence agency lawyers and privacy advocates about the programs. Board members also have solicited public input at public meetings and via the Internet.

“We are preparing a report on these [two NSA] programs and possible reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” Mr. Medine said, referring to the secret tribunal that authorizes NSA collection of Americans’ data.

He declined to give a date for the report’s completion but said he “wouldn’t deny” aiming to deliver it by year’s end. Mr. Medine said the board’s report would include recommendations, some of which might require legislation to implement.

Several legislative proposals are at various stages of development in both chambers of Congress — some bills backed by critics of the NSA’s data-gathering, others by supporters of it. None shows any sign of getting to the floor of either chamber this year.

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About the Author
Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...

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