National News

June 19, 2013

Oversight board concerned about NSA surveillance

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the federal oversight board that President Barack Obama said will meet with him to discuss the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program said Wednesday that the group has numerous concerns about the operation and plans to publish a report after a full inquiry.

David Medine, who heads the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, told The Associated Press that board members have a “broad range of questions” about the NSA’s widespread collection of Americans’ phone and Internet data. Medine, who spoke following a closed-door meeting of the group, did not detail the board’s concerns.

Medine said the group was given a classified briefing June 11 about the secret data collection programs by senior officials of the NSA, FBI, Justice Department and the national intelligence director’s office. Medine declined to identify the officials who attended the briefings.

“Based on what we’ve learned so far, further questions are warranted,” he said.

The oversight board’s two-hour meeting Wednesday was its first since revelations that the NSA secretly has been collecting phone data of millions of Americans and Internet records that are aimed at foreign users but that it also sometimes sweeps up materials from inside the U.S. The meeting was closed to the public because the board discussed classified information, Medine said.

Obama said earlier this week that he would rely on the oversight board to “set up and structure a national conversation” about the two secret programs exposed recently by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The revelations, published in Britain’s Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, exposed the NSA’s massive phone and Internet data collection efforts.

Medine said the oversight board will study the NSA programs and publish a report that includes recommendations. He said the White House would set a date for the board to meet with Obama. The group also plans a July 9 public meeting.

“We’ll take testimony from experts, advocates and academics on the legality of these programs and their operations and how they address privacy and civil liberties,” Medine said.

Obama’s sudden reliance on the board as a civil libertarian counterweight to the government’s elaborate secret surveillance program places trust in an organization that is untested and whose authority at times still defers to Congress and government censors.

The little-known oversight board has operated fitfully during its eight years of existence, stymied by congressional infighting and, at times, censorship by government lawyers. Dormant during the first term of the Obama administration, the board only became fully functional in May and held only two previous meetings.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Medine said, the board discussed its recent classified briefing by national security officials. He added that all five board members have security clearances but because the group is in its early stages, the group has to rely on other federal agencies to provide secure meeting areas where it can review and discuss classified materials.

In an interview this week with television talk show host Charlie Rose, Obama said he planned to meet with the oversight board and “set up and structure a national conversation” about the NSA’s surveillance programs and also “about the general problem of these big data sets because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.”

The board’s mandate includes privacy as well as national security concerns. In theory, it could veer into questions about how Internet companies such as Google and Facebook as well as hundreds of other data-mining companies deal with privacy and how government might regulate those entities.

But as Sharon Bradford Franklin, a senior counsel at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan civil liberties watchdog group, and other civil liberties experts said, the board’s role is largely advisory, identifying problems and suggesting possible solutions.

The board has existed since 2004, first as part of the executive branch, then, after a legislative overhaul that took effect in 2008, as an independent board of presidential appointees reporting to Congress.

Hindered by Obama administration delays and then resistance from Republicans in Congress, the new board was not fully functional until May, when Medine was confirmed.

“They’ve been in startup mode a long time,” Franklin said. “With all the concerns about the need for a debate on the issue of surveillance, this is a great opportunity for them to get involved.”

“They have statutory authority in two main areas,” Franklin said. “One is evaluating whether safeguards on civil liberties are adequate and the other is in transparency — informing the public and ensuring the government is more transparent.”

But there are still limits on the group’s independence when it comes to the public disclosure of classified material. While the board has leeway in scrutinizing classified material and referencing top secret documents, it can only make those materials public if they are first declassified by the government, said Lanny Davis, who was one of the first board’s five members.

Davis resigned in 2007 over his concerns that the board was tied too closely to the executive branch. The group’s first report included more than 200 changes by government lawyers. The controversy led to a congressional overhaul that made the board answerable to Congress instead of the White House.


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