The White House over the past several days has launched a public relations offensive to convince Americans that, under President Obama’s leadership, privacy and Fourth Amendment rights won’t be sacrificed in the name of national security.
The administration took a major step in that effort Friday, as Mr. Obama met for the first time with the newly revived Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a decade-old panel that had been dormant for the entirety of his presidency.
The meeting, hyped by administration officials as proof that the president is committed to having a debate on how to balance national security with privacy rights, was held behind the closed doors of the White House Situation Room, and details of the meeting have yet to be released.
But officials also are making their case publicly. On Sunday morning, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of the embattled National Security Agency, tried to reassure the public that the federal government’s data-collection programs — revealed publicly earlier this month by former NSA employee Edward Snowden, now on the run and believed to be in Moscow — are subject to proper oversight and are vital to protecting the nation.
“We get oversight by [the Justice Department]; we get oversight by the courts; we get oversight by the administration and by Congress, all three parts of government,” Gen. Alexander said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “We follow the laws and we defend this nation. … We’ve got to move this debate from a political debate to a debate on national security, because that’s what we’re talking about … the security of this country.”
Taken as a whole, the recent steps show an aggressive attempt by the White House to reclaim the narrative in the ongoing privacy versus security debate, which largely has been driven by critics of the president, the media and by self-proclaimed “whistleblowers” such as Mr. Snowden.
By resurrecting the privacy watchdog panel, Mr. Obama is committing himself to that privacy-security debate and will help to lead it, according to the White House.
“It will be part of a process,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Friday, adding that the meeting will be the first of several sit-downs that also will include lawmakers and other stakeholders.
“Here’s my answer: They didn’t see this as important enough,” said Lanny Davis, special counsel to President Clinton and a member of the first incarnation of the privacy board.
He was appointed to the panel by President George W. Bush but resigned after being treated more like “White House staff” than an independent watchdog, Mr. Davis said.
Those changes resulted in the near-death of the group. It languished without a full complement of members for five years.
Mr. Obama didn’t nominate anyone to the board until December 2010, and didn’t offer a full five-member contingent until late 2011.
The board’s new chairman, David Medine, former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission, wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until last month, despite being nominated 18 months earlier.