Surveillance revelations highlight long-neglected privacy board

Revelations about classified government surveillance activities should emphasize the need, advocates hope, for a government board that has long been powerless and largely unknown.

For years since its official creation, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) has been unstaffed and unable to function.

Yet recent reports about the scope of phone and Internet surveillance operations carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) could serve as a chance for the troubled young board, now with all its seats filled for the first time, to hit the ground running.


"This is the first true test to see if the board will work as intended, to have some independent oversight of the intelligence activities," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy with the Project on Government Oversight.

Had it been fully operational for years, advocates suggest the PCLOB might have played a larger role in providing a check on the NSA's surveillance.

"One would hope that they would have been able to play such a role, and going forward we hope and expect that they will be able to push for far more robust privacy and civil liberties safeguards in national security programs," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel with The Constitution Project.

The five-member board was first suggested in the 9/11 Commission's 2004 report as a counter-balance to the government's anti-terror programs. It was set up that year and granted independent powers in 2007, but long existed without members, staff or an office.

Both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama had resisted nominating members for years, though the four current board members were confirmed by the Senate last August.

It wasn't until last month, however, that the board's chairman, David Medine, was approved with a narrow 53-45 vote along party lines. 

In the summer before an election, "he got held up in the all-too-familiar political controversies over nominations," explained Franklin.

Without the chairman, though, the board was unable to hire any staff except for two workers pulled from other government agencies.

Even now, the board does not even have a website.

"We're really the equivalent of a government start-up," Medine told NPR on Saturday. 

Shortly after the NSA's surveillance was revealed, Medine jumped on the tactics and requested a full briefing about the programs from the director of National Intelligence. A letter obtained by NBC, though, indicated that the chairman has not yet even received a full security clearance. 

Privacy advocates hope that the PCLOB will receive full access and be able to conduct a thorough investigation of the NSA's activities. They expect that the board's reports would go a long way in shaping the government's approach.

"We would hope and expect they'll be releasing unclassified versions of their reports," said Franklin. "That in and of itself will be a valuable tool to foster public debate."