As we watch Congress wrangle with much-needed reforms to the PATRIOT Act -- particularly attempts to address the misuse of National Security Letters -- it's clear that there are important voices missing from the fray. One notable void stems from the empty Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). Alongside a coalition of civil liberties groups, EFF yesterday called on President Obama to prioritize the nomination of board members so that the PCLOB can contribute to ongoing debates over government surveillance, cybersecurity, and more.
In 2006, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board played some role in oversight of government surveillance abuses. In a recent editorial, former PCLOB Vice Chairman Alan Raul recounted its short-lived impact:
The board met many times in person and by telephone conference. We held numerous private sessions with the president's national security and homeland security advisers, the attorney general, the FBI director and many other officials on the front line of the war against terrorism. At President Bush's personal direction, the board was fully briefed on the most closely held program involving terrorist surveillance. It was also provided full access regarding the FBI's appalling misuse of its authority to obtain information through "national security letters." At the attorney general's request, the board investigated and reported its highly critical conclusions on the scandal to the attorney general and the White House counsel.
However, less than a year after being staffed, the Board was reorganized by congressional leadership. By January 2008, the Board's members were terminated by a "sunset" in the legislation with the understanding that new board members would be nominated and the board reconstituted. Now, nearing the end of 2009, the board still sits empty.
We hope that President Obama recognizes the importance of oversight and takes the advice contained in his own administration's Cyberspace Policy Review, which correctly highlighted how "it is important to reconstitute the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board [and] accelerate the selection process for its board members." We couldn't agree more.