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.