A privacy board was supposed to protect Americans from NSA spies

Bloomberg reports: In the weeks since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed government spying into millions of Americans’ phone calls and e-mails, the Obama administration has reassured the public that there are restraints on U.S. espionage. One check against Washington’s vast counterterrorism efforts is supposed to be the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. In a June 17 interview with Charlie Rose, the president said, “I’ll be meeting with them, and what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation” about privacy.

The board is staffed with five presidential appointees who get top secret security clearances and, in theory, the power to shape both legislation and regulations to assure that espionage undertaken in the name of the Patriot Act or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act doesn’t trample on the public’s privacy rights. That’s how the 9/11 Commission, which proposed the board in 2004, envisioned it would work.

Hamstrung by Congress and ignored by two presidents, the board has been powerless. After neglecting it during his first term, Obama met with board members for the first time on June 21. They never weighed in on the NSA’s Prism program, and had they tried, it’s questionable whether the board would have gotten very far. Its recommendations aren’t binding; the White House, spy agencies, and lawmakers aren’t required to take its advice. And its mandate is virtually impossible to carry out: It’s supposed to tell the public if the government’s secret programs are overreaching, yet it can’t reveal any classified details. [Continue reading…]

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