Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
Lanny Davis, a former member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, says the board was "extremely effective" during its existence.
Lanny Davis, a former member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, says the board was "extremely effective" during its existence. Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
Privacy advocates and congressional Democrats want to know why President Obama has yet to appoint nominees to a privacy and civil liberties board that has been defunct for more than two years.
The board is supposed to ensure that the government protects Americans' privacy and civil liberties in a range of counterterrorism activities. President Bush created the board in 2004 at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, but it fell apart a few years later.
Former member Lanny Davis says the board was "extremely effective" during its existence, though he believes there were problems with the organization's structure. "For example, we read about the terrorist surveillance program — which is probably the most important program that we had to evaluate — in The New York Times," Davis said in an interview.
An Independent Body
The White House eventually gave the board access to classified details about the domestic spying program.
When the panel finished its first report to Congress, Republicans and Democrats on the board unanimously approved the report's conclusions. Then Davis, who is a Democrat, had an unpleasant surprise. "I found, to my absolute astonishment, that the report was extensively red-lined, edited by other people in the White House," he said.
He resigned in protest, and Congress restructured the board in 2007. It had been part of the White House, but Congress made it an independent body.
President Bush never appointed new members, and the board closed up shop. More than a year into the Obama administration, it remains dark.
"I think it was working and working well," says Republican former board member Ted Olson. "And it was a shame that the board had to be dismantled."
Davis calls it "disappointing that President Obama has not yet appointed anyone to fill those five slots."
Privacy advocates and Democrats in Congress seemed willing to give President Obama a grace period. Now there is a growing consensus that the grace period is over.
"I wish they'd hurry up and get the nominations up here," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in an interview. "I've written to President Obama and told him that this shouldn't lag any longer."
The White House has not responded to Leahy's letter. "I'm not sure why," Leahy said. "I realize they've got a lot of things to do down there, but this is something that's going to affect every single American. And I think it should be done. If you're going to have credibility in our various agencies, I think you need something like this."
Other congressional Democrats have made similar requests.
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said the positions will be filled soon, and the president is committed to reviving the board.
Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies believes it can't come quickly enough. "There are a lot of very complex civil liberties and privacy issues being considered inside the administration at the moment that could use the input from a privacy and civil liberties board," she says.
Although independent privacy and civil liberties groups often give the Obama administration input on these issues, Martin says her organization and others "don't have access to information that's secret, so there's no mechanism at the moment that ensures that the voices of the civil liberties concerns are present at the table."
On March 1, 2010, more than 30 privacy and civil liberties groups sent a letter urging the White House to appoint board members without delay.
"As a result of the attempted Christmas Day bombing, your Administration and Congress are considering numerous policy changes that impact the privacy and freedoms of Americans including expanding watch lists and more intrusive searches at airports," the letter said.
Like Sen. Leahy's query, the groups' letter has had no response from the White House.