LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is supposed to protect American's rights when the government engages in a range of counterterrorism activities. At least the board would that if it had any members. The board was created under President Bush at the recommendation of the 9/11 commission, but if fell apart a few years ago. Now, privacy advocates want President Obama to revive the board. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: No one would say the privacy board had a perfect run, certainly not former board member Lanny Davis.
Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Former member, Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board): 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.
SHAPIRO: Eventually, the White House 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.
Mr. DAVIS: I found, to my absolute astonishment, that the report was extensively red-lined, edited, by other people in the White House, people that I still don't know to this day.
SHAPIRO: Davis resigned in protest.
In 2007, Congress restructured the board. It had been part of the White House. Congress made it an independent body. But President Bush never appointed new members, and the board closed up shop. More than a year into the Obama administration, it remains dark.
Mr. DAVIS: It's disappointing that President Obama has not yet appointed anyone to fill those five slots.
SHAPIRO: Ted Olson, who was a Republican board member, agrees.
Mr. TED OLSON (Former member, Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board): It is important, even when something awful happens, that we protect our citizens, but we also stay true to our ideals with respect to constitutional protections for liberty and privacy.
SHAPIRO: Olson said the board made serious headway while it was active.
Mr. OLSON: Units in the administration having to do with terrorism were paying attention to us and respectfully involving us in the process. I think it was working and working well. And it was a shame that the board had to be dismantled.
SHAPIRO: 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. Vermont Democrat, Pat Leahy, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I've written to President Obama and told him that this shouldn't lag any longer.
SHAPIRO: And the White House has not responded to those letters?
Senator LEAHY: No. And I'm not sure why. I think this is something that's going to affect every single American. If you're going to have credibility in our various agencies, I think you need something like this.
SHAPIRO: Several 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, says it can't come quickly enough.
Ms. KATE MARTIN (Center for National Security Studies): There are a lot of very complex civil liberties, privacy issues being considered inside the administration at the moment that could use the input from a privacy and civil liberties board.
SHAPIRO: But, I mean, there are organizations like yours that give good input about privacy and civil liberties issues.
Ms. MARTIN: My organization and others don't have access to information that's secret, and so there's no mechanism at the moment that ensures that the voices of the civil liberties concerns are present at the table.
SHAPIRO: On March 1st, more than 30 privacy and civil liberties groups sent a letter urging the White House to appoint board members without delay. They received the same response Senator Leahy did, which is to say, no response at all.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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