Two days after the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency was collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, Congress finally got moving to allow a long-dormant federal watchdog agency to do its job.
On June 7, the Senate confirmed David Medine, a Democrat and lawyer, to serve as chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a federal agency established in 2004 to protect civil liberties in the post-9/11 world. The board has been leaderless for the last six years, and has hardly functioned in that time as a result of political squabbles and bureaucracy, according to the New York Times.
Lanny Davis, a former member of the board, says it's a shame the watchdog agency wasn't around to examine what the NSA was up to.
"Had this board been fully operational and implemented it would have had some credible comments about the Prism and Verizon cases," he said. The Washington Post reported on the existence of PRISM, the NSA's data surveillance program, a day after the Guardian reported on phone surveillance.
Davis resigned from the board in 2007 after finding that the agency was required to submit its reports to the White House for review and edits before sending them over to Congress. The first report he worked on was "redlined" by senior staff at the George W. Bush White House, he said.
But later that year, the board was reconstituted as an independent agency, meaning it was no longer beholden to White House review, and also got new powers to review the actions of both Congress and the White House.
According to the Federal Register, the board's mandate today is to review executive branch and congressional actions to "ensure that concerns with respect to privacy and civil liberties are appropriately considered."
The board is authorized to read any and all classified information that will help it perform that role, and then provides advice and counsel on areas of concern.
Now, more independent and organized than ever in its ineffective history, the five-member board looks to swing into business quickly – or at least as soon as Medine hires some staff. Medine has already requested a classified briefing on both the NSA's phone and data surveillance programs. According to NPR, he wants information on how effective the programs have been and how they are working to address privacy and civil liberties concerns.
Whispers was not able to reach Medine; the board as of yet has no office, website, or email addresses to speak of.