Obama to hear out 'fierce libertarian' concerns on NSA

President Obama will hear concerns from "fierce libertarians" Friday about recently revealed government snooping by the federal government.

Members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), hitherto a toothless watchdog, will meet for talks with the president amid recent uproar over secret Internet and phone monitoring by the National Security Agency (NSA).

ADVERTISEMENT
A senior administration official said Thursday that the president "looks forward to hearing from PCLOB members about their areas of focus and discussing recent developments."

Obama has billed the oversight board as a counterweight to the government's surveillance programs, saying earlier this week that the panel served as a check on the data mining programs secretly authorized under the Patriot Act.

"I’ve set up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens including some fierce civil libertarians," Obama told Charlie Rose in an interview that aired Monday. "I’ll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities."

The board, however, was funded eight years ago, and has remained largely powerless since then.

The panel was first suggested in the 2004 report by the 9/11 Commission, and was first launched that year. In 2007, the group was granted independent powers, but both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama resisted nominating members for years.

The panel operated without offices or staff for years, and the fifth and final member — Chairman David Medine — was only confirmed last month, by a narrow 53-45 party-line vote.

The board still lacks a website, and until Medine's appointment, had only two federal staffers pulled from other government agencies. It had held only two meetings before a briefing earlier this week, the first since the top-secret NSA programs were revealed by 29-year-old Defense contractor Edward Snowden.

Still, the White House believes that meeting with the panel can help assuage privacy concerns voiced since the revelation of the NSA programs. The senior administration official said the board's functions included "ensuring that the need for such actions is balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Medine said senior officials at the NSA, FBI and Justice Department explained how some of the NSA programs functioned in a meeting with the five panelists Wednesday.

"Based on what we've learned so far, further questions are warranted," he told the wire service.

Medine also said the group plans a public meeting on July 9 and will publish a report that includes analysis of and recommendations for the NSA programs. By law, the board is required to report to Congress not less than semiannually.

In addition to the meeting with the board, the White House on Thursday directed the director of National Intelligence (DNI) to review Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions and filings. The controversial and secret court is responsible for approving many of the government petitions authorizing secret surveillance programs, including the recently revealed NSA data mining.

The DNI will "determine what additional information the government can responsibly share about the sensitive and necessarily classified activities undertaken to keep the public safe," the senior administration official said.

Top technology companies, including Google, have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to lift a gag order to allow them to better detail to the general public what national security requests they have fielded in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts.

NSA Director Keith Alexander also told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week he hopes to declassify more information about how the court functions.

"I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here,” said Alexander.

The White House said the disclosure push "builds on the administration’s ongoing effort to declassify a significant amount of information regarding these programs."

"The president’s direction is that as much information as possible be made public while being mindful of the need to protect sources and methods and national security," the senior administration official said.

—Julian Hattem contributed.