For privacy watchdog, Snowden changed everything

For privacy watchdog, Snowden changed everything
© Greg Nash

David Medine was only four days into his job when Edward Snowden changed everything.

Nine years after the 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of an independent government watchdog to make sure the ramp-up in national security powers didn’t infringe upon individual rights, Medine had finally taken the reins as the first-ever full-time chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB).

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It was June 2013, and the Senate had taken 510 days to confirm Medine in a party-line vote. But he had high hopes about what the board could become.

“I started work on Monday,” Medine recounted recently in a conference room overlooking downtown Washington. That Thursday, Snowden handed the world a series of documents describing the dizzying scope of surveillance powers at the National Security Agency (NSA).

The repercussions, even then, were profound.

Medine had a choice to make. At the time, he was working out of the office lunchroom. The communications system was his iPhone. There was no email system, no website. The PCLOB didn’t even have any permanent staff — just two aides on detail from elsewhere in the government.

But in an instant, he knew that the nation’s first federal privacy board had just been handed the biggest opportunity it would ever receive.   

“The question is: Is the board going to be a player in this or not?” he said in an interview with The Hill. “Because if we took a pass on this, then the board would really have questionable relevance.”

The Snowden leaks became the cornerstone of Medine’s work leading the PCLOB over the next three years.

Despite its unwieldy name and modest stature, the five-member board provided critical analysis as the country debated how to respond to Snowden’s leaks and the ripples they made from Silicon Valley to foreign capitals across the globe. The board declared illegal the NSA’s most contentious program — the bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records — a year before Congress killed it off and provided fodder for a new NSA debate that has slowly begun stirring to life.

Slightly more than three years after that first week, Medine stepped down from the board.

In a statement, Obama praised him for being “as talented and dedicated a public servant as they come.”

“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,” the president said.

Medine left the PCLOB to consult for a World Bank-based group focused on improving lives of poor people around the globe, called the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP).

“Only in Washington could you go from PCLOB to CGAP,” he quipped.

It’s not the first time Medine has dipped into the alphabet soup of Washington throughout his career.

He previously sat through stints at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the White House’s National Economic Council (NEC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), as well as a sizable stretch at the law firm WilmerHale.

His new job, working to protect consumers in developing countries, harkens back to his times with the FTC and WilmerHale.

“These are the poorest countries on the planet, and yet there’s a sense of life and happiness and development and doing things, but also a chance to help improve their economic conditions,” Medine said. “So the chance to do that full-time is very exciting to me.”

But the focus on privacy all started on Capitol Hill years before, while interning for then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) as a college student. Medine was tasked with writing a policy paper that ended up forming the basis of his senior thesis, called “Computers, Databanks and the Right to Privacy.”

The paper focused on the idea “that computers are growing, and they’re going to be a big concern, how much information they gather,” he said, more than 40 years later.

“Of course, our iPhones now have more information than the supercomputers had in those days.”

Medine’s decision to step down 18 months before the scheduled end of his term leaves a void at the top of the PCLOB that might not be filled for months. The White House has not nominated his successor, and it’s unclear whether anyone could receive Senate confirmation in the thick of an election year. The PCLOB is also restricted from hiring new staffers without a sitting chairman.

All the while, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking for ways to limit the PCLOB’s purview or demand that it keep them apprised of its work.

“I’ll certainly be sorry to see him go, given his effective leadership at the board,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Grassley announces opposition to key Trump proposal to lower drug prices Exclusive: Trump administration delayed releasing documents related to Yellowstone superintendent's firing MORE (D-Ore.) said in a statement. “My biggest disappointment, though, is that current law is written in a way that hamstrings the PCLOB when no chairperson is in place.”

Along with Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown Will we ever have another veteran as president? Bernie Sanders open to decriminalizing sex work MORE (D-Hawaii), Wyden has sought to change the law and let the board do more without a chairman. Bills in the House and Senate have yet to gain traction. 

Whatever becomes of the board without him, Medine believes he left behind a blueprint for how the PCLOB could function going forward. The reams of information it has released about U.S. spying are unprecedented and serve as a basis for both sides to debate the program’s merits.

“It’s not the silver bullet; it’s not the solution to everything. Not all of their conclusions have been things that I agreed with or I thought were right,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“But they helped to fill some of that void that has been missing in our surveillance apparatus for some time now.”

During his time, Medine said his board created “an important check” on the nation’s spies without compromising security.  

“We don’t have to have a pendulum that’s constantly swinging from one extreme to another, where we go from collecting too much information to too little information,” Medine said. “I think our board allows for stopping that pendulum from swinging quite as widely, because people will know that if there’s a terrorist attack we’ve done what we can to try and thwart it, but it doesn’t mean that we have to give away our privacy and civil liberties in reaction to today’s event.”

“And, likewise, if we get lulled into thinking everything’s OK, we don’t have to go the other direction,” he said.

“We can continue to strike the right balance.”