Civil Liberties

President Obama Finds Cover in the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board He Neglected Through His First Term

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President Obama
White House

President Barack Obama reportedly meets today with the executive branch's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board as public debate swirls around NSA surveillance of phone calls and the Internet, IRS targeting of the administration's political opponents and Justice Department snooping on journalists who have asked embarrassing questions. All in all, it's a lot like a serial philanderer caught in flagrante delicto dropping his butt into the front pew at church after a very long absence. And a very long absence it has been — the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board met for the first time in five years just last November, after near-total neglect during President Obama's first term (not that his predecessor was a fan of the institution, either).

Yes, President Obama did finally nominate three people to the board in 2011. But it's not clear that much other than a press release resulted from those nominations until almost a year later. On November 2, 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation trumpeted:

This week marks the first time in five years since the last Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) meeting. The board is an independent body within the President's office that is supposed to ensure privacy and civil liberties in the creation and implementation of US law and policy and executive branch actions against terrorism, but has languished for some time due to Presidential neglect.

The board, not surprisingly, had published nothing between November 2007 and October 2012.

That November meeting didn't exactly herald a flurry of activity. In February of this year, with the presidential election in the rear view mirror, the American Civil Liberties Union's Jay Stanley wrote a short blog post titled, "Small But Significant Privacy Oversight Institution Almost a Reality After Pathetic Story of Delay." Stanley pointed out that the "U.S. intelligence/national security establishment" had a combined budget of about $80 billion and a staff of 4,863,000, while the PCLOB, intended to keep that establishment from straying, had a roughly $1 million budget and no staff.

Of course, that was before Edward Snowden, House hearings, outrage from the Associated Press and Fox News … President Obama is in need of some absolution.

It's going to take more than a little pew-warming, Mr. President. Go forth and sin no more.