White House Board on Privacy Hears Comments

The White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Board got an earful during its first public meeting Tuesday. People complained about the government's perceived breaches of privacy in the name of security. Specifically, government wiretapping and airport security procedures.

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The White House's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board had its first public meeting yesterday, and the public has some critical things to say. Congress created the board based on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Almost any time civil liberties experts talk about post-9/11 security policies, they make the same argument. They say privacy and safety are consistent. It's not a tradeoff.

Indiana University professor Fred Cate said he first heard that claim a few years ago from someone at the Department of Homeland Security.

Professor FRED CATE (Law, Indiana University): And at that time I thought it was kind of that mindless government rhetoric that sounded good but in reality could not possibly be right.

SHAPIRO: But yesterday in testimony before the White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, Cate gives some examples of how safety and freedom actually do coincide. Take a terrorism watch list, he said. If it's full of bad information and the wrong people are getting stopped in airports all the time.

Professor CATE: It frankly raises concerns not only about privacy but it raises concerns about security as well.

SHAPIRO: He told the board there are too many government policies that limit people's freedom and make Americans less secure. Like the rule that says people can only bring liquids on to airplanes in a 32-ounce bag.

SHAPIRO: Thirty-two ounces of the right liquid in the right place will absolutely bring down an airliner. We're accomplishing nothing with this system. It is 100 percent irrational. It is security theater. It is designed to make us think something's going on, when in reality nothing is going on.

SHAPIRO: The most heated discussion yesterday was not about liquids on airplanes. It was about the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program. The board has been briefed on the program and members have said they're impressed with the civil liberties checks that are in place.

One member of the audience pointedly asked whether the panel knows how many American's phones have been tapped.

Unidentified Man: Have you urged that that information be made public, and has that been rejected?

SHAPIRO: Board vice chair Alan Raul said he couldn't answer the question because his group needs to be able to give the president confidential advice. Several witnesses were frustrated that the board has not pushed back publicly against any Bush administration programs.

Vice chair Raul, who worked in the Reagan White House, said the panel sees merit in these programs.

Mr. ALAN RAUL (Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board): We hope that the board's efforts to provide additional public explanation of the government's internal checks and balances could be a win-win for both the warriors against terrorism and the advocates for civil liberties.

SHAPIRO: The board cannot dictate policy. It's suppose to, quote, "ensure that concerns with respect to privacy and civil liberties are appropriately considered in the implementation of all laws, regulations, and executive branch policies related to efforts to protect the nation against terrorism."

Caroline Fredrickson of the ACLU wondered what's the point of a Civil Liberties Oversight Board that can't impose policy.

Ms. CAROLINE FREDRICKSON (American Civil Liberties Union): It's all bark and no bite. It does not have subpoena power. And it lacks independence, slotted as it is on the executive office of the president. Contrary to its name, the board has little, if any, oversight authority.

SHAPIRO: The board's five members are appointed by the president and they serve at his discretion. The lone Democrat in the group is Lanny Davis, who was one of President Clinton's lawyers. He said if Congress had wanted to create an independent agency, that's what it would have done.

Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board): Ask yourself why Congress did what it did rather than asking us whether we're supposed to be both an independent oversight authority and within the office of the president; and if so, how do we do that? That's an open question that none of us up here have been able to quite figure out.

SHAPIRO: After the hearing, board chair Carol Dinkins defended the position that her team occupies. Dinkins was deputy attorney general in the first Bush administration.

Ms. CAROL DINKINS (Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board): We see our role as being one to work persuasively, to work internally within the executive branch, and to really seek to work in a collegial way.

SHAPIRO: The board's first report to Congress is due in March. White House officials will review it before it's released.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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