[This post has been updated.]
A measure to strip a government watchdog’s ability to conduct oversight of U.S. covert action programs is expected to pass Congress as early as this week as part of a larger must-pass budget bill.
The measure is a jab at the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent executive-branch agency whose job is to ensure that the government’s counterterrorism programs respect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.
The board’s chairman, David Medine, upset the House Intelligence Committee's GOP members with an essay he co-authored in April that suggested that an independent review panel was needed to assess whether the government’s decisions to target U.S. citizens in drone strikes are appropriate. The essay also said that the PCLOB would be a good candidate to serve as the review board.
The committee majority saw that suggestion, along with other reviews the PCLOB was undertaking, as “mission creep,” one aide said at the time. Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said then that “review of such activity is ill-suited for a public board like the PCLOB.”
But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the measure is “clearly unwise.” Though the board’s oversight activities to date have not focused on covert action, he said, “it is reasonably easy to envision a covert action program that could have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and civil liberties – for example, if it included a significant surveillance component.”
He said that an even larger concern is that the CIA “could attempt to take advantage of this language…and refuse to cooperate with investigations of its surveillance activities by arguing that those activities were somehow connected to a covert action program.”
He added: “In my 15 years on the intelligence committee, I have repeatedly seen senior CIA officials go to striking lengths to resist external oversight of their activities…Congress should be making it harder, not easier, for intelligence officials to stymie independent oversight.”
Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, also knocked the measure. “Members of Congress should focus on improving oversight and accountability of NSA surveillance — not reducing what little exists,” she said.
The measure passed the House earlier this year as part of the 2016 intelligence authorization, but the Senate did not include it in its version, and so the measure died. It was revived and attached to the budget bill this week.
The head of the House Intelligence Committee defended the move. “The PCLOB simply isn’t well-suited to monitor covert action,” Nunes said. “The congressional intelligence committees already perform that task – exercising oversight is the committees’ primary function.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, opposes the measure, saying it unnecessarily constrains a body “which has already proven to be of substantial value."
But he said it should not be allowed to hold up the budget omnibus.
“Even with this provision,” Schiff said, “the PCLOB maintains an expansive jurisdiction to review current and proposed counterterrorism programs, including those related to surveillance, to assess their impact on privacy and civil liberties.”