The Surveillance Oversight Board Is Dead And It's Unlikely President Trump Will Revive It

from the probably-writing-up-a-DNR-as-we-speak dept

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) -- at least partially responsible for recent surveillance reforms -- is dead. The first hints of its demise were tucked away in the annual intelligence budget, which gave Congress direct control of the PCLOB's investigative activities.

The last vestiges of the board's independence have been stripped away and it seems unlikely the incoming president is going to have much interest in restoring this essential part of intelligence oversight. Congress now has the power to steer the PCLOB's investigations. A new stipulation requiring the PCLOB to report directly to legislators means intelligence officials will be less forthcoming when discussing surveillance efforts with board members.

At best, the PCLOB would have limped on -- understaffed and neutered. That was back when the news was still good (but only in comparison). The Associate Press reports that Donald Trump is being handed the keys to a well-oiled surveillance machine, but with hardly any of the pesky oversight that ruins the fun.

The five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will have only two remaining members as of Jan. 7 — and zero Democrats even though it is required to operate as an independent, bipartisan agency. The vacancies mean it will lack the minimum three members required to conduct business and can work only on ongoing projects.

This could be fixed quickly, but it would require Trump nominating members and having the Senate approve them. It took well over a half-decade for President Obama to do this, so it wasn't even a priority for a president who promised to helm the "most transparent administration." These vacancies will probably be left open by an incoming president who seems largely uninterested in safeguarding civil liberties.

The PCLOB's report was instrumental in the challenged renewal of the Section 215 bulk collection program. The board might have played a similar role in the Section 702 renewal discussion in 2017, but with it out of the way, there's a good chance it won't receive as much of a challenge as the NSA's phone metadata program. (Then again, the PCLOB wasn't very critical of this internet backbone-tapping collection program, despite it harvesting far more than "just metadata.")

More critically, it left some work unfinished -- its investigation into the executive order underpinning the government's many intelligence programs.

Already in limbo is a public oversight report on the use of a Reagan-era executive order that since 1981 has authorized sweeping powers by intelligence agencies like the NSA to spy even on innocent Americans abroad and never has been subject to meaningful oversight from Congress or courts...

The privacy panel's report on the order is stalled and there's no work being done on it, according to the individual, who has knowledge about the project's status. Some individual agency reports related to the order were expected to be completed before the board loses its quorum, the person said.

The PCLOB is dead, for all intents and purposes. It survives in name only, awaiting presidential attention it's unlikely to receive. The last 15 years have shown what a lack of oversight can result in. The past couple of years have seen some encouraging movements towards accountability and transparency, but without the PCLOB's ability to perform its own investigations and, more importantly, deliver its findings to the public, further reform efforts are likely to be snuffed out.


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  • identicon
    Agammamon, 23 Dec 2016 @ 12:23pm

    From the pedants-with-too-much-time-on-their-hands dept

    ". . . from the probably-writing-up-a-DNR-as-we-speak dept"

    Uhm, its both too late and moot to write up a DNR *after* death.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Dec 2016 @ 1:08pm

    I know you hate it but...

    "The first hints of its demise were tucked away in the annual intelligence budget, which gave Congress direct control of the PCLOB's investigative activities."

    We need things like this to happen. The citizens need to understand that the root of all of their problems lay with Congress. Not President Obummer or Drumpf... even though Obama has a lot of blame and I am sure Trump will cause during his administration.

    Either way, far too many bitch and moan about the agencies, the other things... but almost never Congress... the very group of corrupt bastards that COULD put a president or out of control agency in check.

    Focus on congress... it's one of the reasons I would be happy if the FCC is actually guillotined, though I suspect that it will just be hamstrung instead creating an even worse problem.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 23 Dec 2016 @ 2:04pm

      About that...

      Either way, far too many bitch and moan about the agencies, the other things... but almost never Congress... the very group of corrupt bastards that COULD put a president or out of control agency in check.

      Last time I checked the numbers for a comment on another article Congress' approval rating was below 20%, so I think it's safe to say the number of people who think congress is doing a good job are the minority.

      There's a sort of chicken vs egg situation as well on assigning blame. Congress sets the limits and hands out the tools, while the agencies are the ones that decide who much to stretch/break those limits and use the tools given to them, the latter being much more visible to the general public than the former, even if the former is about as impactful.

      (A hypothetical example: Congress passes a law that gives agencies a gun and tells them they are allowed to shoot it. In the example Congress is providing the scenario where someone can be shot, but it's ultimately the agencies that decide that someone will be shot and pull the trigger.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Dec 2016 @ 5:47pm

        Re: About that...

        And that is the very description of a law that is too broad. If you give someone access to a lethal weapon, then you better set the limits for when it can be used, because in the end they will go to the very boundry of the law and when they find that easier, they will set up camp at that boundry.
        It could very simply be described like this: The more power a law gives, the narrower it needs to be and the greater the punishment for breaking the law needs to be.
        Congress needs to start acting like grown-ups because like children, the agencies, police and other people in power needs strict boundries and to be punished when they try to set the freaking curtains on fire.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Jackson, 23 Dec 2016 @ 2:09pm

      Corrupt Congress

      [_]

      "...far too many bitch and moan about the agencies, the other things... but almost never Congress... "


      TRUE

      The PCLOB is/was a tiny, worthless bureaucratic committee with no power to fix anything. Its real purpose was public-relations fig leaf -- to give the false appearance that the government was really really concerned about surveillance abuses.

      Congress always has had all the resources/power it could ever need to address this issue--- plus they could figure it out themselves with little effort ... if they wanted to. This ain't difficult stuff -- it's basic Constitutional principles.

      Congress is dysfunctional and corrupt -- it cannot even perform its most basic duties -- such as passing a budget.

      Focusing on the "importance" of obscure agencies like PCLOB ... demonstrates that one is entirely missing the big picture and fundamental problem.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Dec 2016 @ 2:36pm

      Re: I know you hate it but...

      When Udall didn't read the torture report into the record as a swan song back in the day, I quit thinking there was any hope for fixing things by getting 'good people' into Congress.

      When it became obvious that our choice was going to be 'Clinton or Trump' and we didn't all set ourselves on fire as the only rational recourse, I quit thinking there was any hope for fixing things by doing anything at all.

      Merry X-Mas from Robot Santa!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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