Democratic House members wrote President Barack Obama this week urging him to fill an independent oversight board created to protect privacy and civil liberties in the war on terrorism.
More than a year after his inauguration, President Obama has not nominated anyone for the panel.
"We are writing to encourage you to immediately nominate qualified individuals to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB)," the letter signed by 22 Democratic House members, including House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), said. "Though both your Fiscal Year 2010 and 2011 budgets fund this Board, it is not operational."
(For more on the balance between civil liberties and security inside the Obama government, see "Civil Liberty Concerns Could Become a Factor in Grants to State Fusion Centers" from December 2009)
The board's purpose is to advise the executive branch on proposed counterterrorism policies and ensure civil liberties and privacy concerns are taken fully into account in the war on terrorism. The board also has some power to make sure departments appropriately follow civil liberties and privacy guidelines. "The Board has authority to complete its analysis, including the ability to issue subpoenas to compel the production of evidence and testimony," according to Monday's letter.
The five-member board was created in December 2004 as part of the Intelligence Reform Act, owing to the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission. Initially, the PCLOB was housed within the Executive Office of the President and its members served at the pleasure of the president, according to a September 2009 Congressional Research report. Only two of the five board members had to undergo the Senate confirmation process. The board was subsequently strengthened and became an independent agency after critics assailed it as an appendage of the White House.
Lawyer Lanny Davis, an original member of the board nominated by President Bush in 2005, resigned from the board after its first report to Congress received editing from senior White House officials. In an editorial in The Hill in early March, Davis wrote that while the edits were "not substantive" he believed any White House edits undermined the board's independence
"While it was supposed to provide 'independent oversight' and report to Congress, the Bush White House and some congressional Republicans had insisted that it be placed in the Office of the President," he wrote. "In practice, the board was logically viewed by senior White House officials as the functional equivalent of White House staff."
Congress didn't approve of this status and in 2007 reconstituted the PCLOB as an independent agency within the executive branch. All five members now had to undergo the Senate confirmation process. If confirmed, board members serve six-year terms.
The board's last report delivered to Congress came in January 2008, more than two years ago. The Democratic members' letter let President Obama know that the board has existed in limbo long enough.
"As new privacy and civil liberties emerge, such as the use of new screening technologies and watchlisting procedures," the letter reads, "it is imperative that the Board be fully operational to evaluate and advise the Executive Branch on the privacy and civil liberties implications associated with such changes."
♦ Screenshot of letter
♦ To read the full letter to President Obama urging him to nominate individuals to the PCLOB, click below.