War on Terror

The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

Obama avoids scrutiny of his respect for civil liberties.


Writing in The Washington Post last March, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said requiring the Justice Department's inspector general to evaluate the benefits of national security letters, which intelligence agencies use to demand private records, would "duplicate oversight already conducted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board." One crucial flaw in this argument: There is no Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

As 9/11 Commission co-chairmen Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton noted last week, the board has been "dormant" since 2008 because neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has managed to appoint its five members. This failure is vivid testimony to the continuing disregard for civil liberties and the rule of law under a president who promised to revive respect for both.

In its 2004 report, the 9/11 Commission called for "a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to the [privacy] guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties." This oversight turned out to be a pretty cozy arrangement, since the board, created by Congress that December, was part of the White House and consisted of five members appointed by the president. One of them resigned in 2007 to protest interference by "senior White House officials" who insisted on editing the board's reports.

Congress beefed up the board in 2007, making it an independent agency with subpoena powers and requiring Senate confirmation of its members. In theory, those changes made the board a better watchdog; in practice, they made the board disappear, since the old one ceased to exist and the new one has never met.

In July 2008, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the House's leading advocate of the new, improved board, welcomed an impasse between Congress and President Bush over its membership. "If the goal is to protect civil liberties," she told Newsweek, "you might have a stronger board by waiting" for the next administration.

Or not. President Obama waited until last December, halfway through his term, to nominate anyone for the board. Neither of his two picks has been confirmed yet; even if both were, the board would still be one member shy of a quorum.

"If we were issuing grades," Kean and Hamilton say, "the implementation of this recommendation would receive a failing mark. A robust and visible Board can help reassure Americans that these [anti-terrorism] programs are designed and executed with the preservation of our core values in mind. Board review can also give national security officials an extra degree of assurance that their efforts will not be perceived later as violating civil liberties."

This talk of reassurance is a bit alarming, since a properly functioning Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board might conclude, from time to time, that the government's efforts to fight terrorism are not compatible with "our core values." The board should be highlighting violations of civil liberties, not preventing the public from noticing them.

Still, it would be nice to have an agency that focuses on the tradeoff between freedom and security—or, more accurately, the tradeoff between one kind of security (against terrorism) and another (against tyranny). If it ever comes into being, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will have plenty to discuss.

In addition to those national security letters (which Kean and Hamilton note "may implicate the privacy of Americans" because they require no judicial review or probable cause), there are those nifty new whole-body scanners at the airport, those missiles the president uses to kill people he unilaterally identifies as enemies of the state, and those regulations the Justice Department wants to facilitate eavesdropping and snooping. Discussing these and other threats to privacy and civil liberties would highlight the continuity between Bush and Obama, neither of whom has ever hesitated to trust himself with more power.

Bush and Obama "just have not put an effective board in place," Hamilton recently told The Washington Times, "and I can't understand why." Seriously?

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.


NEXT: Busting the Bank

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  1. I’m sure North Korea has the exact same oversight system.

    1. I’m sure their fake oversight system is much more efficient than the US’s fake oversight system.

  2. …the continuing disregard for fear of civil liberties…


  3. What a joke…two peas in a pod.

    1. …and the Earth was healed.

  4. I think everyone’s looking at it the wrong way: this is a government program that Obama has actually downsized. It’s not as if this government “committee” would actually do anything of any use to anyone — even if its stated goals are laudable.

    1. It would help to quell all that popular unrest from continuously eroded civil liberties and mindless waste of bureaucracies like TSA. Damn that ever-vigilant fourth estate for stirring up the proles with their fiery rhetoric.

    2. I would bet that the nominated, but not confirmed, members are getting paid something. And they aren’t allowed to do anything.

      1. Actually, that’s probably right. I withdraw my previous comment due to a lack of sound government thinking on my part.

    3. But I suppose the argument would be that it could do something. Not having it means 100% certainty that it won’t.

      But I basically agree with you, and I’m not sure how laudable the goal of “reassuring” us is.

  5. …the board has been “dormant” since 2008 because neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has managed to appoint its five members

    I read this as “…the board has been a doormat since…” but the meaning and truth of the phrase is not much changed.

  6. the board has been “dormant” since 2008 because neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has managed to appoint its five members.

    All right, let’s get this party started: SugarFree, Warty, Pro Lib, Res Pub, and … White Indian.

  7. Are not “city (civil)” and “liberties” oxymoronic as a term?

    “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” ~Thomas Jefferson

  8. Are not “city (civil)” and “liberties” oxymoronic as a term?

    “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” ~Thomas Jefferson

  9. Good point, Thomas Jefferson. Just like “voluntary city” is an oxymoron.

    1. Or anti-slavery slave-holder.

  10. Agricultural City-lization is consistently “externally invasive and internally repressive,” as Stanley Diamond points out in his book In Search of the Primitive.

    Civi Liberties? LOL Think the leopard is going to change it’s spots with just the right application of Fibertarian wit? Suuuurrrree, they might throw you a few bones.

    Want real Liberty? Try a Non-State sociopolitical typology.

    They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. ~Ben Franklin

  11. There’s no such thing as a “balance” between liberty and security, since they aren’t opposites. Taking away liberty does nothing to make us safer.

    1. Lie spread-eagle on the floor, and you won’t get hurt.

      1. …unless they’re out of lube, of course

    2. One can only have liberty with security, the more security one has the more liberty.

    3. didn’t someone say that trading one (liberty) for the other (security) soon leaves you with neither?

      1. Yeah, but that was, like, over 100 years ago or something, so it doesn’t apply any more.

        1. lmao

  12. Civilization is an artificial prison.

    Fibertarians, born in prison, taught by the prison, inured to the prison, hardly realize it is a prison.

    But they can sort of detect some of the symptoms of the prison, so they flit about proposing that instead of institutional prison walls, we shall have privatized prison walls.

    As soon as somebody comes along, like White Indian, and says he would like to take his chances outside the prison, the Fibertarians go hysterical, and begin to parrot everything the prison taught them: fear of wilderness (freedom.)

    It’s dangerous outside these prison walls. You won’t get good prison food outside these prison walls. You might get wet outside these prison walls.

    Fibertarians tremble at real freedom, and content themselves to small reforms like changing the width of prison bar spaces, privatizing the prison cafeteria (ostensibly for more freedom, but really just to make a few of the prison trusties even more money,) and promoting the concept of strong privation property cell areas.

    1. No one (here) is stopping you from “taking your chances outside the prison.” In fact, we encourage you to do so…. because they don’t have internet out there.

      1. Sssshhhh. You are feeding the Troll. Please stop.

        1. +1

        2. Ok but in some guy’s defense, everyone else feeds the troll. Did we forget to fill out a troll-feeding license form?

      2. Ya know, put food out on the sidewalk, and you get pigeon poop.
        Not a good idea.

  13. Ultimately as the saying goes, people get the leaders they deserve. The same politicians who care zero about things like civil liberties get voted in again and again, so it really is the voters fault.

  14. so it really is the voters fault

    Sure, NotSure, just blame the victims, even if the victims do demonstrate a high level of Stockholm Syndrome.

    If voting could change anything, it would be illegal. Really.

    Voting is a placebo, a social venting mechanism, to placate the wilder of the domesticated poodles.

  15. Now I get to take my prison tray to my private cell, instead of having collective piles of prison trays in the prison cafeteria.

    A real advance in civil-citylization liberties. Now, donate to the Reason Foundation, and we’ll get the Koch brothers in charge of a privatized cafeteria instead of those nasty democrat wardens over there. Then we’ll really be free.

  16. Tony: One can only have liberty with security, the more security one has the more liberty.

    While Fibertarians have vague feelings that something is wrong with the prison of City-lization, prison advocates like Tony love it.

    And Tony out-argues the Fibertarians arguing for privatized prison trays, because he is internally consistent in his apology of the prison.

    Rearden Steel Prison Bars for more Security and Liberty!

    1. Are their less per capita ass-rapings in the privatized prison in comparison to the public one?

      1. “Are their less per capita ass-rapings in the privatized prison in comparison to the public one?”

        This is much more important criteria for my choice than privatizing the prison trays

  17. No one (here) is stopping you from “taking your chances outside the prison.”

    I do thank you for the lovely sentiments; however, the prison has completely invaded and occupied nearly every square meter of Mother Earth’s surface now.

    There is no more frontier; if there was, I’d be beyond it. I’d be like the rich landowner of whom Benjamin Franklin wrote of, as follows:

    When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return, and that this is not natural to them merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. One instance I remember to have heard, where the person was brought home to possess a good Estate; but finding some care necessary to keep it together, he relinquished it to a younger Brother, reserving to himself nothing but a gun and a match-Coat, with which he took his way again to the Wilderness. Though they have few but natural wants and those easily supplied.

    ~Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, May 9th. 1753

    1. There is no more frontier; if there was, I’d be beyond it.

      The ocean. Antarctica. Space. Mars. There’s always a frontier. I can’t help it if you are unable to support yourself out there.

      1. The United States of Space! M…A…R…S. Mars. Mars, bitches!

  18. James Axtell, in his book The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America, (Oxford University Press) has a chapter called The White Indians (p. 302)

    In it, he describes poodlized prison-loving Fibertarians perfectly, as follows:

    The second article of the English faith followed from their fundamental belief in the superiority of civilization, namely, that no civilized person in possession of his faculties or free from undue restraint would choose to become an Indian. “For, easy and unconstrained as the savage life is,” wrote the Reverend William Smith of Philadelphia, “certainly it could never be put in competition with the blessings of improved life and the light of religion, by any persons who have had the happiness of enjoying, and the capacity of discerning, them.”

    The rest of the chapter debunks the Reverend’s prison apologetics.

    also see:
    The White Indians of Colonial America
    Author(s): James Axtell
    Source: The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 55-88
    Published by: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

    1. This is what Whiney Indian’s argument ultimately comes down to: Because some shat-upon Colonist peasants chose to live with Indians 250-500 years ago, anarcho-primitivism MUST be the right way. Since all the claims of “primitive affluence” and longevity of Pleistocene humans has been shattered by actual facts (how exactly did the human population stay below 100,000 for so long, when birth rates/intervals were comparable to sedentary society? LOL!), he has to go back to his irrelevant strawman that is the basis of his name.

  19. Anyone who expected good from the sack of shit with big ears is not too bright.

    1. team blue can be described as the ignorant being lead by the evil.

      1. team blue red can be described as the ignorant being lead by the evil.

        Hmmm. Seems to be just as truthful this way, too.

        1. Would agree for the most part. The economic illiteracy of team blue will fuck us up far worse than team reds desire for socially conservative group think.

          1. I’m with you there. I can always buy weed, except when I have no job or money.

  20. I’m done. Many of you will celebrate.

    And I wish you the best of luck in privatizing those prison trays.

    Tony is right, keeping the trays in the cafeteria is more efficient.

    But the Fibertarians do have a point too. Sometimes you have to eat from a bent or scratched prison tray, and that just really gets under some people’s skin.

    I trust you will enjoy your shiny, privatized, polished, individually owned prison trays, just as soon as you convince the wardens they can skim a cut off the deal.

    But watch for a wall to come down soon. Collapse of Complex Prisons is coming, as Joseph Tainter demonstrates in his book.

    Prisons always crumble. It’s the law of diminishing returns.

    The planetary disaster is traced to one simple fact. Civilization is out of balance with the flow of planetary energy…the principle of soil says that if the humans cannot maintain the soil of the planet, they cannot live here.

    The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future
    by William H. K?tke
    ISBN-13: 978-1434331304

    Now that the doctor says I can use my body again physically to preserve and improve soil, to garden and nurture Mother Earth, it’s time before winter approaches. Again, thanks folks, for allowing a former Fibertarian to test the integrity of his newfound ideas.

    Good day.

    1. About damn time. Hopefully these comment thread become tolerable again.

    2. WOW – this anti-civilization primitivist was apparently suckling at the teat of modern medical science. AHAHAHAHAHAHA

      1. Can’t say I’m surprised to hear that.

        “Civilisation sucks, but I sure love its medicines!”

  21. Yeah, Max said he was through with H&R, too. Like everything else, I’ll believe it when I (don’t) see it.

    Till then, I’m enjoying my collection of prison food trays by my own damned self.

    1. you are so easily pleased

  22. I don’t think WI has yet informed us what being a “fibertarian” actually is. Is it the unrestrained support of dietary fiber? Or maybe fibers used in clothing?

    1. Please don’t ask.

    2. “Fib” as in “Lie”.

      Not “Fiber” as in … “Fiber”.

      Basically he’s an insulting idiot.

  23. Basically he’s an insulting idiot. Please don’t ask.Or maybe fibers used in clothing?

    1. Says the bot with the link that makes no sense.

  24. Thanks for post. s?ve, mantolama fiyatlar?, ?s? yal?t?m?
    | mantolama | | s?ve modelleri |

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