Why Is Congress Undermining President's Surveillance Oversight Board?
from the not-good dept
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) is supposed to be an independent body that makes sure that the intelligence community is not abusing its surveillance powers. It was created to go along with the PATRIOT Act, as a sort of counterbalance, except that it initially had basically no power. In 2007, Congress gave it more power and independence and… both the Bush and Obama administrations responded by… not appointing anyone to the PCLOB. Seriously. The Board sat entirely dormant for five whole years before President Obama finally appointed people in late 2012. Thankfully, that was just in time for the Snowden revelations less than a year later.
The PCLOB then proceeded to write a truly scathing report about the NSA’s metadata collection under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, calling it both illegal and unconstitutional. While the PCLOB was less concerned about the NSA’s Section 702 program (which includes both PRISM and “upstream” collection from backbone providers) the group has been working for nearly two years on an investigation into Executive Order 12333 — which is the main program under which the NSA spies on people.
However, as Marcy Wheeler points out, Congress seems to be bending over backwards to try to undermine and undercut the PCLOB. That’s especially unfortunate, because at one point there was even a bipartisan effort to give the PCLOB more power, but things seem to have gone the other way instead:
As I reported, during the passage of Intelligence Authorization last year (which ultimately got put through on the Omnibus bill, making it impossible for people to vote against), Congress implemented Intelligence Community wishes by undercutting PCLOB authority in two ways: prohibiting PCLOB from reviewing covert activities, and stripping an oversight role for PCLOB that had been passed in all versions of CISA.
The new changes are subtle, but problematic. The first is that the PCLOB is limited to spending money only on issues for which Congress has directly approved the spending. In other words, if Congress doesn’t want the PCLOB investigating a certain area, no problem, it can just make it clear that funding does not cover that area. That kind of voids the PCLOB’s supposedly “independent” nature. The second issue is that it requires that the PCLOB warn intelligence community bosses if they’re going to investigate a new program. While these changes may not seem like a big deal, they do suggest a clear attempt to undermine the power and authority of the PCLOB. Perhaps that’s why the head of the PCLOB, David Medine, resigned early, before his appointment was up, just a few months ago.
At a time when we need a lot more independent oversight of government surveillance powers, it’s unfortunate to see Congress apparently pushing for less oversight.