Politics & Government

Watchdog board that keeps eye on U.S. intelligence agencies barely functions

President Donald Trump angrily charged last weekend that former President Barack Obama had ordered the tapping of his telephones, without providing any proof. Trump is not the only American for whom the government’s eavesdropping authorities are worrisome.
President Donald Trump angrily charged last weekend that former President Barack Obama had ordered the tapping of his telephones, without providing any proof. Trump is not the only American for whom the government’s eavesdropping authorities are worrisome. AP

A little-known civilian watchdog board whose responsibilities include monitoring the civil rights compliance of U.S. spy agencies is barely hanging on to life.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a bipartisan entity that emerged from the surveillance state that mushroomed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, no longer has an executive director, can’t gather a quorum, can’t hire staff and can no longer issue reports, say people familiar with its work.

“PCLOB is comatose,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington-based group that advocates for a free internet. “This is a case where you have to crawl before you run a marathon. PCLOB can’t even crawl.”

Of the board’s five members, all of whom were seated in 2012 or 2013, only one, Elisebeth B. Collins, remains. The rest have rotated off or resigned, leaving the board unable to take action. The latest to drop off, Rachel L. Brand, saw her term end Feb. 21 and has been nominated to become associate attorney general at the Justice Department.

The board, whose staff holds security clearances, is empowered to oversee the secret federal court that can issue warrants to monitor foreign spies inside the United States. It also can review the actions of intelligence agencies to make sure they are lawful. And it can ask the attorney general to issue subpoenas on its behalf.

In short, the board acts as an intermediary between the government and the public on intelligence matters. Despite its broad mandate, the board does not have a high profile.

“I’m not sure many senators know what PCLOB is. It’s pretty obscure,” said Alan Butler, senior counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center in Washington.

Butler called the board “an essential component of intelligence oversight” and said that even President Donald Trump, who voiced concern over the weekend about the government tapping his telephones, should offer support for the board’s work.

“Ordinary citizens are rightfully concerned, as the president is, over abuses of intelligence authorities,” Butler said. ‘We know that the powers of the government in this area are quite vast.”

He said the board’s staff could no longer finalize and release reports.

“They are, I would say, entirely hampered in their ability to do their statutory duty and carry out their critical role in oversight,” Butler said.

While the board was born out of what is commonly called the 9/11 Commission in 2007, it didn’t really begin work until 2012. The White House appoints its chairperson, and the Senate must confirm its other four members.

Its operating parameters have still not fully gelled, and some lawmakers would like to see it remain in obscurity, perhaps even holding meetings and taking actions in secret.

“If PCLOB is exempted from the sunshine laws, it will become just another agency captured by the intelligence community,” Nojeim said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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