Bush's privacy watchdogs make public debut

At first public meeting, White House panel hears from civil-liberties advocates but sheds little light on supposed watchdog role.

WASHINGTON--In a stately, wood-paneled hall at Georgetown University, a seemingly phantom White House panel charged with overseeing privacy and civil-liberties issues made its public debut Tuesday. But it didn't quite receive the warm welcome it may have liked.

At its first open meeting since it was conceived two years ago, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board heard more than three hours of tips for future action--and not all of it gentle--from advocacy groups, think tanks and academics of various political stripes.

Of the 10 such representatives who spoke on panels at the meeting, many urged the group to probe more deeply into the constitutional issues surrounding electronic surveillance, data mining and swapping, and terrorist watch list programs conducted by the government. Some didn't mince words.

"When our government is torturing innocent people and spying on Americans without a warrant, this board should act--indeed, should have acted long ago," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's office in Washington, told the panel in her testimony.

Training her gaze on the five presidentially appointed board members, she added: "Clearly you've been fiddling while Rome burns."

The board, borne out of an act of Congress in 2004 based on recommendations by the 9/11 Commission, has been dogged before. 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, as well as congressional Democrats and watchdog groups accused the Bush administration of not taking the endeavor seriously and dragging their feet in nominating members and getting the group up and running.

That's because it was not until March 2006 that all of its members, which include partners at high-profile law firms and the chief security officer of General Electric, were confirmed by the U.S. Senate and able to hold their first meeting. Since then, they have held more than a dozen closed-door meetings composed "mainly of phone calls or teleconferences with administration insiders and agencies," by the ACLU's critical characterization.

Some board members implicitly acknowledged that rocky past but sought to reassure the sparsely populated hall that Tuesday afternoon's meeting, which they billed as an "expert's forum," would not be a one-shot deal.

"You should always feel free to raise your comments, your concerns and maybe even an occasional compliment," Chairwoman Carol Dinkins, who served as a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration's Department of Justice and is now a partner, told an audience of about 40 people at the outset of the meeting. Dinkins is now a partner focusing on environmental and administrative law at the firm Vinson & Elkins.

How much power?
But in an ironic twist, the very group that the participants in Tuesday's meeting hoped to call to action wields less power than critics say it should.

By law, its members serve "at the pleasure" of the president, which means they can be retained or fired at his discretion. Although the body may request documents or interviews with officials, it lacks the power to subpoena such materials that many congressional committees and federal agencies enjoy. The government is free to withhold information if it determines that divulging it would thwart national security or "sensitive law enforcement or counterterrorism operations."

According to published reports, the board wasn't briefed until late last month on the National Security Agency's once-secret program for warrantless terrorist surveillance, which has drawn legal challenges from civil-liberties watchdogs who claim that it sweeps up the phone calls and Internet communications of millions of innocent Americans. The program came to light through a New York Times report nearly a year ago.

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