Civil Liberties Panel Is Off to a Sluggish Start

By Caroline Drees
Monday, August 8, 2005

A civil liberties board ordered by Congress last year has never met to discuss its job of protecting rights in the fight against terrorism, and critics say it is a toothless, under-funded shell with inadequate support from President Bush.

Lawmakers including some Republicans, civil rights advocates, a member of the Sept. 11 commission and a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board have expressed concerns.

Lanny Davis, the only well-known liberal among the five people Bush nominated after a six-month delay, said he had not received a call from anyone related to the board since it was formally announced in June. Davis said he could not comment on specifics because the members had not yet met.

All four other panel members declined to comment.

The inactivity comes as Congress is about to reauthorize several provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which gave the government new powers to go after suspected terrorists.

Asked why it was taking so long to set the board up, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said, "It's not a priority for the administration."

The intelligence reform law of December 2004 called for the oversight board in response to a recommendation from the Sept. 11 commission, which feared that increased governmental powers needed to fight terrorism could erode civil liberties.

Top White House officials have said the board would address those concerns, and get the resources needed to do the job.

But almost eight months after its inception, critics say the panel still exists only on paper, and lacks the money, power and presidential backing to ensure the entire government respects Americans' rights.

The Bush-appointed panel "is a very watered-down board without the kinds of powers which I believe are necessary to provide credibility and authority, such as independent subpoena power . . . and a bipartisan process in selection," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the Sept. 11 commission.

"We don't think the board serves as a credible watchdog," said Tim Edgar, national security policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

One frequent complaint concerns the board's budget. Bush requested $750,000, which Congress doubled to $1.5 million.

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