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Why Is the Oversight Board Tasked With Reining in Big Brother Still Hanging in Limbo?


"an extraordinary disappointment in government"

With many concerned about privacy infringement by the government as things such as surveillance drones become more mainstream in local police departments and bills such as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act raise protests over online tracking, many may be asking this question: Is a check against Big Brother legislation and surveillance capabilities?

According to an NPR report, the answer is yes -- and no. It turns out there used to be a board that was phased out of its previous state to become more independent, but as of right now, nothing is really being done with it. NPR explains:

As it turns out, there used to be just such an entity — the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The suggestion for the board came from the 9/11 Commission, as a kind of counterbalance to national security laws like the Patriot Act. [Lawyer Lanny] Davis served on the board under President George W. Bush — until he resigned to protest White House interference.

But then a funny thing happened: Congress rewrote the law to make the board stronger — and independent of the White House. On paper, the board is now a formidable check against Big Brother. In reality, though, not so much.

Listen to NPR's full report:

Alan Raul, vice chairman of the board from 2006 to 2008, explained in a Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post in 2010 that Congress began enacting legislation to phase out the board in an effort to make it an entity independent of the White House. President George W. Bush then selected nominees, but the Senate did not confirm them.

At this time two years ago, Raul calls out President Barack Obama for not naming nominees himself after Congress asked him to March 2010. Congress asked that he "immediately nominate qualified individuals" as it was "imperative that the Board be fully operational to evaluate and advice the Executive Branch."

Obama named two members in Jan. 2011 and two more in Dec. 2011, but it appears next steps rests with the Senate again. Some of the feedback from the Senate after the president's first nomination what that the board needed more members than were recommended to be fully functional.

Some worry the current group will get rejected by Senate Republicans. NPR includes former Republican board member Asa Hutchison saying it is an "an extraordinary disappointment in government" that the group is not staffed and providing oversight again.

One of the benefits of the board, according to Franklin, is that they can review information before it is able to reach the public, hopefully "assuring us that that kind of oversight is going on."

According to a Nov. 2011 status report, the board was initially developed to "oversee adherence to the guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties."

This story has been updated to correct a misspelling. 

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