Privacy watchdog chairman resigns two years before end of term

The first-ever head of a small federal privacy watchdog is resigning this summer, a year and a half before his term ends in 2018.

The surprise announcement from David Medine, chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), will leave a hole at the top of the five-member board, which has been instrumental to shining a light on the National Security Agency (NSA).

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In a statement, President Obama said that Medine’s tenure took place “during an especially momentous period, coinciding with a concerted examination of our national security tools and policies to ensure they are consistent with my administration's commitment to civil liberties and individual privacy.

“Under David's leadership, the PCLOB's thoughtful analysis and considered input has consistently informed my decision-making and that of my team, and our country is better off because of it,” Obama added.

The privacy board has served as a crucial tool for critics of the NSA’s expansive surveillance powers in the years since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks about the agency. The PCLOB’s 2014 declaration

Serving as the board’s first chairman was a “great privilege,” Medine said in a statement.

“During my tenure and thanks to the support of the president and Congress, the board has been able to carry out its timely mission of conducting oversight and providing advice to ensure that federal counterterrorism efforts properly balance national security with privacy and civil liberties,” he added.

The watchdog PCLOB had a troubled beginning and was largely ignored after its formal creation in 2007.

Medine was not confirmed until 2013, for a term that ends in January 2018. Before his confirmation, the body could not hire its own dedicated staffers, and it largely existed in irrelevance at the margins of the government.

That changed in 2013, when Snowden’s headline-grabbing leaks about the expansive powers of the NSA rattled the country and prompting lawmakers in both parties to demand that it be reformed.

The privacy board’s 2014 declaration that the NSA’s vast collection of American’s phone records was illegal served as a critical blow to the agency and laid the goundwork for the program to be ended the following year.

Medine came to the PCLOB after stints at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He had also worked in the White House’s National Economic Council, the Federal Trade Commission and the law firm WilmerHale.

His resignation will take effect July 1. In a statement, the privacy board said that Medine will leave his post to work at a development organization focusing on data privacy and consumer protection issues for people in developing countries

The PCLOB has been far from universally critical of the NSA and other federal spying powers. In 2014, it largely endorsed the agency’s use of a contentious portion of a 2008 spying law, known as the FISA Amendments Act.

The board is currently working on analysis of an executive order that is believed to allow for the government to undertake a broad swath of spying efforts. A legal fact sheet dating to 2013 claims that the “majority” of the NSA’s data collection is performed “solely pursuant" to the order, known as Executive Order 12333.

In his statement on Tuesday, Medine said that he will continue his work on the board until he leaves office. It's unclear whether the executive order analysis will be finished by the time he leaves.