President Obama planned to meet with the little-known Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on Friday afternoon as his administration sought to assuage fears that it had overreached with its surveillance programs in favor of national security.
The meeting comes after weeks of the administration being hammered over government programs that let the National Security Agency to obtain millions of Americans’ phone records and access foreigner’s web communications through nine leading Internet companies.
The commander-in-chief has defended the practices, insisting the country must strike a balance between keeping Americans safe while also meeting privacy concerns.
Obama has played up his closed-door meeting with the board, insisting that the group will play a crucial role in striking that balance during an interview with Charlie Rose that aired this week. But Obama’s trumpeting of this meeting might not do much good; after all, most Americans have never heard of the board.
The five-member PCLOB is relatively new–created in 2004 following recommendations by the 9/11 Commission. It was made an independent agency in 2007. The board has no website or offices, and the chairman, David Medine, a former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission, was only confirmed by the Senate in May. According to The Hill, until Medine’s appointment, the board only had two federal staffers and has held only two meetings–ever–until this week.
Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation that defends free speech and privacy, told msnbc.com that there are questions about how effective the committee will be because it’s so new.
The board, he said is a “good start” but will be unable to compel testimony from the NSA or demand redacted documents.
He said a special investigative committee “must be created to fully inform the public and vet these programs,” adding “While the PCLOB will investigate the recent revelations, closed door meetings will not allow for the American public to have an open and honest debate on the unconstitutional domestic spying by the NSA.”
Michelle Richardson , a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said there are genuine concerns that the board has met such few times, adding it will likely take a few weeks for the board to be “up and fully functioning.” Richardson noted, however, that it’s “no small feat to get a meeting with the president” and that she’s “not ready to write the board off as pointless. We’ll have to see how the board works.”
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the surveillance programs.
One of the board’s main goals is to analyze and review actions taken by the executive branch to protect the nation from terrorism—and make sure such actions are balanced by the need to protect privacy and civil liberties.
Medine told the Associated Press that the group has a “broad range of questions” to ask the president about the NSA’s programs. The board has said it will hold a public meeting on July 9 and plans to release a report with recommendations for the government.
Other board members include James Dempsey, the vice president of Public Policy for the Center of Democracy and Technology; Rachel Brand, chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the Chamber of Commerce; Elisabeth Collins Cook, a former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice; and Patricia Wald, a former chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Obama told Charlie Rose that the board is composed of some “fierce civil libertarians” and that he wants to “set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.”
A senior administration official from the White House said in a statement to NBC News that the president and members of his administration will begin meeting with other stakeholders on protecting privacy in the digital era. The groups were not specified.