Dormant liberties agency awakens to tasks

Met in October after five-year lull

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A presidentially appointed panel charged with ensuring federal laws don’t impede Americans’ civil liberties has nothing to show for itself in recent years, failing to meet even once during a five-year span because vacancies had left the board dormant for so long.

The federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board finally had enough members to meet once last fall, but it awaits a chairman, continues a search for office space in the Washington area and is still working on building its website.

It took President Obama until nearly the end of his first term to appoint members to the board, a move made only after critics called on him to fill the seats. Likewise, President Bush failed to fill vacancies on the board, which was created through a recommendation of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Since last year, four part-time members have been named, but Mr. Obama’s nominee for the full-time chairman’s job — David Medine — is awaiting Senate confirmation.

The lack of a chairman raised questions about whether the board would be able to function at all, but officials insist they are working to become operational.

Officials at the board declined to discuss specific issues that the panel plans to review, but said in a written statement to The Washington Times that it is active and “plans to develop a sound understanding of critical government counterterrorism-related initiatives.”

With its first few months spent looking for office space and handling budget and personnel issues, the board said its first meeting with newly sworn-in members this fall was aimed at soliciting public input on its upcoming agenda.

“While the board is working to clear these administrative hurdles, it has begun to delve into the important substantive aspects of its mandate,” the board said in its statement to The Times.

Without staff, the board employs its chief administrator and legal counsel on loan from other federal agencies.

Mark Rumold, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of several watchdog groups that criticized the Bush and Obama administrations for letting the board languish, said he is cautiously optimistic that the board will delve into several important civil liberties issues this year.

“It’s been five years,” he said. “I was away over the holidays and papers stacked up on my desk, so they definitely have their work cut out for them.”

Mr. Rumold said the board should review, among other issues, joint local-federal terrorism tasks forces to determine whether they have been worth the money.

“I don’t know that they’ve led to much in terms of leads in terms of combating terrorism, and what they’ve spiraled into are giant money pits and civil liberties infringement offices,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Medine’s nomination will have a better chance of moving forward in a new Senate. The White House announcement of Mr. Medine’s nomination in late 2011 listed him as a partner at the WilmerHale law firm who specialized in privacy and data security.

But even with four board members, the panel can meet and transact business. The board met for the first time on Oct. 31 when it heard from civil liberties groups urging the board to focus its attention on a range of privacy issues.

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