You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board To Meet Next Wednesday

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, June 13 2013

A long dormant independent agency that was at least nominally supposed to exercise a modicum of oversight over the booming intelligence-industrial complex is scrambling to meet up next Wednesday, but the public will still be none the wiser about what it plans to do, since it is a closed door meeting.

The only indication that the toothless body is coming to life is an anodyne notice in the Federal Register published Thursday morning noting the time and location of the meeting.

"The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will meet in closed session to discuss classified information pertaining to the PRISM-related activities and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," says the announcement.

It's unclear what exactly will be discussed, and what action the members of the board will take. The chairman is David Medine, a Beltway insider and University of Chicago-trained lawyer who previously practiced privacy law at Wilmer Hale, and who has completed stints as a senior White House advisor on the National Economic Council, an attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Other members of the PCLOB include Elizabeth C. Cook, the Center for Democracy and Technology's Vice President for Public Policy Jim Dempsey, and the Chamber of Commerce's Vice President and Chief Counsel for regulatory litigation Rachel L. Brand. Retired D.C. Appeals Court Judge Patrica Wald was also on the board, but her term expired at the end of January.

A Congressional Research Service paper published last August notes that the PCLOB has no subpoena power. Instead, it has to appeal to the Attorney General for help in compelling information from the relevant agencies in its oversight duties. The board's duties include analysis and oversight of the administration's anti-terrorism policies and ensuring that they don't ride roughshod over U.S. citizens' civil liberties. President Obama requested a million dollars in his 2013 budget to fund the operation. However, the board hasn't been functional since the Senate didn't confirm Medine until mid-May.

In the meantime, the National Security Agency's Director Keith B. Alexander said Thursday that he plans on releasing more information about the way it conducts its surveillance in light of the revelations uncovered by The Guardian and The Washington Post last week. He briefed House lawmakers on the programs on Thursday.

A large group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle last week sent a letter to both Alexander and FBI Chief Robert Mueller outlining their concerns over the overbroad collection of information on U.S. citizens, and in particular the collection of information on Americans' phone calls, even if it's 'only' on the metadata associated with those calls.

Sens. Jeff Merkeley (D-Ore,) and Mike Lee (R-Utah,) along with Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.,) Dean Heller (R-Nev.,) Mark Begich (D-Alaska,) Al Franken (D-Minn.,) Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore) introduced a bill earlier this week that would de-classify some Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions so that the public can better understand the nature of the U.S. government's surveillance activities.

Several lawmakers from the Bay area have demanded more oversight of the way the NSA conducts its surveillance activities, and several of the technology companies named in the published by the Guardian and The Washington Post have denied that they provide unfettered access to their customers' private information. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo have all spoken out asking for more transparency around the issue. For its part, Yahoo issued the following statement earlier this week:

"Several companies in the tech industry have urged more transparency from the U.S. government around FISA requests. We at Yahoo! add our voice to this appeal. We recognize the importance of privacy and security, and we also believe that transparency around the number of FISA requests will help build public trust."

Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley lawyer, and former deputy assistant secretary for the Obama Administration's Department of Commerce who's running to represent Silicon Valley, said that the latest incident shows that Congress has failed to exercise its oversight duties.

“I believe Congress has been too complacent in its oversight of these programs. I urge all our elected representatives to seek answers on what the specific goals of the PRISM program are, what limits are in place, and how abuses are uncovered and documented," he said. "In our system of checks and balances, Congress must work to protect our civil liberties even as the president and the military seek to assure our national security. We cannot afford a Congress that’s asleep at the switch."

He also said that the NSA should have applied some of the security expertise that tech companies use to control access to sensitive information.

“Also, there is something wrong when one low-level consultant, acting on his own, can leak thousands of sensitive documents. We need to use Silicon Valley’s expertise and innovation to improve upon existing intelligence technology and implement new processes for minimizing government employees and contractors from misusing sensitive data," he said. "Many of the most respected tech companies involved in this debate have their own internal monitoring systems for all data inquiries conducted by their employees, and have robust mechanisms for removing those who breach their customers’ trust. We ought to apply that knowledge to our national security functions.”