By Julian Hattem - 06/21/13 09:13 PM EDT
President Obama had a "candid" first meeting on Friday with the members of a federal board that was created by Congress to protect civil liberties. [WATCH VIDEO]
The meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) is "part of a process" to address concerns about the surveillance work of the National Security Agency (NSA), press secretary Jay Carney said.
"The president believes that PCLOB can be an important part of the national conversation on these issues," Carney added, "but in the coming weeks the president and the members of his administration will begin meeting with a range of stakeholders about protecting privacy in the digital era."
In the meeting, the president "committed to providing them with access to all the materials they would need to fulfill their oversight and advisory functions," the White House official said.
Earlier in the day, Carney described the meeting in the White House Situation Room as "more than a get-to-know-you session," but even that is considered a big step for the five-member panel, which only reached full strength last month.
The PCLOB still has no website, and Chairman David Medine was only approved by the Senate last month.
Both Obama and former president George W. Bush were slow in nominating members, leaving it largely dormant for years.
The agency was granted independent powers in 2007, but before Medine came on the job it was unable to hire full-time staff, and depended on two employees pulled from other agencies. The chairman is also the only full-time member; other members are required by law to be part-time.
Still, privacy advocates hope that the meeting represents a new White House focus on civil liberties.
"The fact that President Obama is meeting with the Board is a hopeful sign," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy with the Project on Government Oversight, in an email to The Hill. "It tells me that he is taking more seriously the concerns about privacy and civil liberties that we and others have raised."
The meeting "demonstrates that the president is focusing on the need for independent oversight and demonstrating, with this meeting, that he believes this board's role is an important one and that other members of the administration needs to take it seriously," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel with the Constitution Project.
"I don't know if the meeting, per se, will move the ball forward so much but the fact of the meeting, I think, is very important," she added.
The board is required to report to Congress and the president, and unclassified copies of those reports will be made available to the public. It is scheduled to hold a meeting with the public in July and has already been briefed by the National Security Agency (NSA) about its top-secret phone and Internet monitoring activities.
Advocates hope the board will bring more information to light about the legal authority and scope of surveillance programs.
In a letter on Tuesday, dozens of organizations asked the PCLOB to push Obama to order additional release of information, including documents from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.