Obama privacy board gets members after two years

It took the president nearly two years, but today he began appointing members to a board charged with overseeing government's privacy practices.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

As a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to "strengthen privacy protections for the digital age."

But it wasn't until today, nearly two years after taking office, that the president finally began appointing members of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Obama's first two picks: Jim Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Elisebeth Cook, a former assistant attorney general under President Bush now in private practice at the Freeborn and Peters law firm. The positions are subject to Senate confirmation.

A 2007 law requires Obama to appoint members "in a timely manner." But its drafters included no penalties--the possibility must have been inconceivable--if the president chose to ignore the law's requirement for over a year.

Most government committees, panels, boards, and commissions have little influence and produce reports that are quickly forgotten. But when Congress endorsed the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission by creating the oversight board, it took a small step toward creating a quasi-independent body.

As a result, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board enjoys actual authority, including the power to compel government agencies to turn over documents or be questioned about their actions.

Federal law explicitly grants it access to "all relevant records, reports, audits, reviews, documents...or other relevant material, including classified information" held by the executive branch, and it has the power to send subpoenas to companies and individuals demanding they testify or turn over information.

In other words, it could focus on everything from controversial TSA screening techniques to whether journalists would be threatened by any WikiLeaks-related prosecution that could narrow the scope of what kind of speech is legal or not. The legislation creating the board mentions oversight of data-sharing "fusion centers"; it is supposed to approve the training intelligence analysts assigned to the centers receive; it's also charged with reviewing "actions the executive branch takes to protect the nation from terrorism" and preparing public reports every six months.

Obama's nominations to the board come after congressional Democrats have repeatedly pressed him to fill the vacant seats. An earlier version of the board was seen as ineffective, which is what led Congress to give it additional authority.