Congress Seeks 'Bite' For Privacy Watchdog

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Key lawmakers want to replace a White House privacy and civil liberties board created by Congress in 2004 with one that is more independent of the president. The idea is to make the board more like the one envisioned by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

As the commission's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, said yesterday: "We felt that you had to have a voice within the executive branch that reached across all of the departments of government with strong powers to protect our civil liberties."

But the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is resisting proposals that would dramatically change its composition and powers. The battle is another sign of the changed political landscape, with the Democratic-controlled Congress pushing for stronger oversight of the Bush administration's counterterrorism programs.

"In 2004, the Senate endorsed the idea of a strong privacy and civil liberties watchdog to keep vigil as the government launched a full-bore effort to make the nation safe from terrorists," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who caucuses with the Democrats. "Congress passed a weak proposal. Now we are back to make sure the watchdog has both a bark and a bite."

House Democrats see the board, which took office only last March after a series of delays, as too beholden to President Bush, who selects the members.

Despite its position, the board has had to wait months before receiving briefings on sensitive administration programs, and then only with permission from the White House counsel's office.

"Since its inception, the administration has failed to properly fund the board, and quite frankly, there have been no visible results of its existence," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Separate House and Senate measures would require that the entire board be confirmed by the Senate -- now it is only the chairman and vice chairman -- and that no more than three members be from one party.

The House provision would remove the board from the Executive Office of the President but keep it within the executive branch and give it subpoena power, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission. The Senate version would keep the board within the executive office and allow it to ask the attorney general to issue subpoenas. Congress would have to be notified if a subpoena request were denied or modified.

Two board members, however, including the lone Democrat, said the board would lose its effectiveness if it were outside the executive office and had "adversarial powers" such as subpoenas.

Vice Chairman Alan Charles Raul said he wanted an environment in which agencies initiated contacts with the board to review programs with civil liberties implications -- before there is a controversy.

"It's almost unreasonable to think that an agency is going to reach out at a very early stage to a body that by design, by mind-set and by reporting channels, is outside the president's supervision, even if they're technically within the executive branch," Raul said yesterday.

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