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As surveillance scandals swirl, Obama to sit down with privacy board

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With concerns over federal surveillance near the boiling point, President Obama on Friday will hold his first meeting with the newly constituted Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a senior administration official said.

The sit-down comes as the depth of government surveillance slowly comes to light, with the latest revelation being this week's admission by FBI Director Robert Mueller that the bureau uses unmanned drones to keep an eye on American citizens. He told Congress the craft are used only on a limited basis in crisis situations.

Experts say the privacy board — a watchdog arm of the federal government in existence for nearly a decade but dormant for more than five years — could play a pivotal role in shining a spotlight on government data-collection efforts. It also could be vital in informing the public of what the government is up to, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan civil liberties watchdog organization.

"They can get access to a full picture of these surveillance programs," she said Thursday.

In addition to the FBI's admission of drone surveillance, the Obama administration also is under fire for collecting telephone records of millions of Americans. After that program was revealed publicly, Mr. Obama said he welcomes a debate on national security and privacy.
Now in the spotlight for the first time, the privacy board is set to be a key part of that debate.

It will fulfill two major roles, according to the White House. First, it will offer advice on policy development and implementation of surveillance programs. Second, it will serve as an additional oversight arm and will review any proposed legislation or regulations. It also will advise the president and all relevant departments and agencies and is specifically charged with ensuring privacy and civil liberties are protected, according to the White House.

The board's new chairman, David Medine, the former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission, was confirmed by the Senate last month. His nomination had been outstanding for more than a year.

The other board members are: James Dempsey, vice president of public policy for the Center of Democracy and Technology; Rachel Brand, chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former Justice Department official; Elisabeth Collins Cook, former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department; and Patricia Wald, former Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Created by Congress in 2004, the privacy board initially was part of the executive branch of the federal government but was reclassified as an independent agency in 2007.

Even as an independent agency, the board accomplished little. Nominations to the board under both Mr. Obama and former President George W. Bush were held up in Congress.

It was only in August 2012 that the Senate confirmed four of Mr. Obama's nominees to the panel. In May of this year, the Senate confirmed Mr. Medine as chairman, finally giving the board a full membership and the power to serve its intended purpose.

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