Privacy board returning to obscurity

A government board created in 2004 that's supposed to protect Americans' privacy and civil liberties is being threatened with a return to obscurity because neither the executive branch nor Congress cares enough to nominate and approve board members.

Presidents Bush and Obama both dragged their feet on even nominating board members to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and the Senate took years to approve the nominations.  It wasn't until the chairman was approved by the Senate in 2013 – nine years after the board was created – that the board began to do its job.

Now, the only full-time board member, Chairman David Medine, announced his resignation effective this summer – a year and a half before his term is up. 

Privacy and civil liberties groups, who have praised the work by Medine and other board members, are now concerned that the group will once again fall back into obscurity unless President Obama names a new chairman.

The Hill:

In the short-term, the PCLOB will be able to continue on without Medine, even though the four other members only work part-time. By law, they could increase the amount of time spent with the board, if they so chose. 

But without a chairman, the board will be unable to directly hire new staffers from outside the government, which could become a problem if the vacancy lingers.

“With all due respect to all of the other board members … they’re part-time,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program. “Having somebody full-time, driving the work for the board like this, is really important to get things done.”

And there could be more problems if  it takes until 2017 for the Senate to confirm a new chairman.

The term of another board member, James Dempsey, ran out in January. He has been re-nominated by the White House, but has yet to be confirmed. Dempsey is allowed to continue in his current post until the end of the year, but could be forced out if the Senate does not act on his nomination by then.

“We’re always telling people about how great our system is because of oversight,” Patel said. “So I think it would be really kind of shameful if we didn’t have this one very important piece.” 

Before Medine joined the board in May of 2013, it was by all accounts ineffectual.

The privacy watchdog was granted independent powers in 2007 and was first recommended in the 9/11 Commission’s 2004 report.

But until Medine was approved as its first chairman, the board had just two staffers — they were brought over from other agencies and were hamstrung in what they could do. It was only in 2013 that the PCLOB moved into office space and set up its website. 

One month after Medine became chairman, Edward Snowden leaked reams of documents about the National Security Agency (NSA), thrusting into the spotlight questions about digital privacy and U.S. spying powers. 

And under Medine, the PCLOB responded quickly. Despite its small size, the board made significant waves in early 2014 when it declared the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records illegal.

The declaration provided to be critical early ammunition to opponents of the NSA’s spying powers. Last summer, Congress killed the phone records program.

The PCLOB may be the most important government entity you've never heard of.  But is anyone surprised that politicians don't want the board looking into what the government is doing with regards to surveillance?  With privacy issues becoming more prominent in the minds of voters, those concerned about government surveillance should demand that the president and Congress place a priority on keeping the board functioning.