WASHINGTON--Congress is already well on its way to bestowing new powers on an internal White House panel that's supposed to judge whether Bush administration programs like the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance regime pose privacy and civil liberties concerns.
But the board's chairman on Tuesday had one message for the politicians backing the new authority: thanks, but no thanks.
Civil liberties advocates have long dogged the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board--which was created within the White House by Congress in 2004 at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission but didn't meet until 2006--for its perceived inability to make real assessments without executive branch officials looking over its shoulder and its lack of transparency to the public.
In fact, what is supposed to be a five-member body has already recorded one dropout--former Clinton Administration special counsel Lanny Davis--who cited precisely those concerns when he stepped down in May.
So both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed bills this year that attempt to address those concerns. The House version proposes the more drastic changes: severing the body from the White House and making it a standalone, independent agency with subpoena power. (The Senate version would leave the board within the White House but require the chairman to work full time and confirmation of all members--not just the chairman and vice chairman--to staggered six-year terms.)
But at an hour-long hearing Tuesday afternoon in a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee, board vice chairman Alan Raul said the House approach in particular is "potentially unwise."
He argued such a move would deprive the board of its current "unparalleled" access to executive branch officials, would be inefficient in that it requires appointment of a whole new board, and could limit the number of private meetings members are permitted to have.
Raul, a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin in Washington and a former Reagan White House attorney, also complained that Congress never bothered to hold "formal hearings" to hear board members' views before passing those bills. (The two chambers are currently meeting to reconcile the differences between those two proposals, which focus more broadly on implementing 9/11 Commission recommendations.)
Davis, who left the board, said he tried to give the structure of the panel a fair chance but ultimately decided the setup was akin to "a square peg in a round hole." His concerns escalated this spring, he said, when the White House edited and made "significant deletions" to the board's annual report on its findings to Congress--although most of the deletions were ultimately restored after Davis aired his complaints.
The committee members, for their part, didn't really comment on Raul's views--perhaps because the bills have already moved so far along. Some Democrats, addressing no one in particular, did rehash familiar concerns that the Bush administration's various antiterrorist and law enforcement programs may pose threats to Americans' rights.
"I'm worried our liberties have come under attack by our own government," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the Judiciary Committee's chairman.
Raul, meanwhile, touted the board's work in its 35 "formal" meetings since March 2006. Among other things, the board has evaluated National Security Agency surveillance programs, the State Department's e-passport initiative, the Treasury Department's terrorist finance tracking program and the FBI's misuse of national security letters to capture telephone and Internet records, of which Raul said was "highly critical."