Civil Liberties Panel Is Off to a Sluggish Start
Critics Decry Administration's Lack of Urgency

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.

The Department of Homeland Security's privacy office, with a similar mission limited to that department, has about a $13 million budget, said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

"I don't think you can do it for a million and a half," Shays said.

Critics, including Thompson, also ask why it took Bush half a year to nominate the five board members when the administration acted much faster to implement other, more complex parts of the 2004 law. The Senate must still confirm the chairman and vice chairman after it returns from its summer recess.

Shays, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and other lawmakers have proposed an amendment granting the panel greater independence and powers, including subpoena authority.

Right now, Maloney said, "it does not have teeth. It does not have enforcement. It does not have strength behind it."

Asked for comment, the White House sent a copy of a June letter to Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) that said it would ensure the board had the resources to fulfill its mission and would reexamine the issue once the panel was up and running.

The two senators had written to the White House expressing concerns about the board's budget, as well as delays in setting it up and implementing other parts of the 2004 law.

"As we work to make America safer, it is equally important that we are careful to preserve the very liberties that we seek to protect," Collins said in an interview. "The board is critical in this regard."

Mary Fetchet, whose son died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, criticized the slow pace. "I am really shocked that in many instances in Washington I feel that there's this attempt to go back to the status quo, while I feel there should be a sense of urgency," she said.

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