Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Sharon Bradford Franklin. This version has been corrected.
President Obama held his first-ever meeting Friday with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) — the group charged with ensuring that the executive branch balances privacy and civil liberties needs with its national security efforts.
The board promised a thorough review of how the administration conducts its secret surveillance programs, including the monitoring of Americans’ cellphone and e-mail traffic. The board is charged both with overseeing the executive branch’s approach to national security and making sure that civil liberty concerns are taken into account when the federal government develops and implements law, regulations and policies related to national security.
In an interview after the meeting, the board’s chair, David Medine, who was confirmed in May, said he and other members “were pleased to meet with the president today.” He added that they informed Obama of their plans to review the two programs, which fall under sections 215 and 702 of the Patriot Act, that have sparked controversy this month.
“The review is a top priority for the board,” Medine said, adding that when the board asked Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. to provide them with a classified briefing recently, Clapper dispatched senior officials to deliver it “two days later.”
Medine added that the board will hold a public workshop, most likely July 9, that would bring together academics, experts and advocates to explore issues raised by the national surveillance programs. “We intend to issue a public report on our conclusions and recommendations,” said Medine, who was associate director of the Federal Trade Commission. The board could recommend that the Obama administration end the programs, but Obama is not legally obligated to follow the advice.
The White House declined to comment on the meeting.
The 9/11 Commission first proposed the idea of the board as a way to monitor the nation’s counterterrorism policies in the wake of the 2001 strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In August 2007, Congress enacted legislation to strengthen the five-member body by making it independent of the executive branch and providing it with subpoena power, but it languished for years without any members.
Obama didn’t offer a full slate of nominees until December 2011; the oversight board became fully functional only in May.
In an interview this week with PBS television host Charlie Rose, the president said he intended to meet with the PCLOB to “set up and structure a national conversation” about the controversial programs as well as discuss “the general problem of these big data sets because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.”
“It’s high time that this board was activated,” said Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole, adding that while its members will likely “get to see the full picture” of the nation’s spy network given their security clearances, they can only add to the current conversation about surveillance “to the extent they are able to make their conclusions known in a robust, public way.”
“They don’t have any power in and of itself,” said Cole, an expert in civil liberties and constitutional law. “Their power is to persuade. Their power is to inform the public debate.”
Medine said it was “premature” to say whether the board would be constrained by the lack of declassified information surrounding the controversial spy programs.
Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for the Constitution Project, a bipartisan civil liberties group, said the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s activities should give the oversight board leverage with the White House.
“The timing is actually helpful to the board in establishing the board as an important player, and establishing its role as a meaningful one,” she said, adding the board is obligated to disclose when the administration rejects its recommendations. “This board is going to show the public how seriously his administration takes civil liberties.”
Obama has recently directed Clapper to declassify some information related to the government’s spy programs. On Thursday, the president asked Lisa Monaco, his assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, to direct the director of national intelligence, in consultation with the Justice Department, to review Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions and filings relevant to the programs and to determine what additional information the government can “responsibly share about the sensitive and necessarily classified activities undertaken to keep the public safe.”
In addition to Medine, the board includes James Dempsey, vice president of public policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology; Rachel Brand, chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former U.S. assistant attorney general; Elisabeth Collins Cook, who also served as a U.S. assistant attorney general; and Patricia Wald, former chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.