WASHINGTON – A White House privacy board has determined that two of the Bush administration's controversial surveillance programs — electronic eavesdropping and financial tracking — do not violate citizens' civil liberties.
After operating mostly in secret for a year, the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Board is preparing to release its first report to Congress next week.
The report finds that both the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program and the Treasury Department's monitoring of international banking transactions have sufficient privacy protections, three board members told The Associated Press in telephone interviews.
Both programs have multiple layers of review before sensitive information is accessed, they said.
"We looked at the program, we visited NSA and met with the top people all the way down to those doing the hands-on work," said Carol Dinkins, a Houston lawyer and former Reagan administration assistant attorney general who chairs the board.
"The program is structured and implemented in a way that is properly protective and attentive to civil liberties," she said.
Some board members were troubled by the Department of Homeland Security's error-ridden no-fly lists, which critics say use subjective or inconclusive data to flag suspect travelers.
One area the board will focus on in its report is the computerized anti-terrorism screening system recently announced by DHS and used for years without travelers' knowledge to assign risk assessments to millions of Americans who fly abroad.
"That's a place where there's a lot of opportunity for improvement," Dinkins said.
Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House counsel and the lone Democrat on the panel, described the board's first report to Congress as modest. He explained that most of the work in the past year was spent being briefed on the administration's surveillance programs.
After several classified briefings, the board was reassured by the eavesdropping program's "multiple layers of checks and balances and accountability," he said. "The people running the program themselves are very well-trained and identified bright lines."
The board's initial findings come as Congress is moving forward on measures to give the board more authority and make it more independent of the president.
Both conservative and liberal civil liberties groups have called on the members to aggressively review the eavesdropping program and have questioned whether board members would stand up to the president if he were flouting the law.
In recent weeks, the administration has agreed to let a secret but independent panel of judges oversee the program. But many lawmakers and civil libertarians have remained skeptical about its legality, and the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating whether the agency used any of the information improperly.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called it absurd that the board effectively gave the eavesdropping program its stamp of approval even before the administration was forced to backtrack and submit it to court oversight.
"I have no confidence in the current board in its ability to provide meaningful evaluation of important programs such as the no-fly lists, based on its work on the domestic surveillance program," he said. "It is critical that Congress make the civil liberties board independent of the executive branch."
The board does not have subpoena power, and the White House can check its annual reports to Congress. The members serve at the pleasure of Bush, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has final say over whether officials must comply with the board's recommendations.
Separate House and Senate measures would require that the entire board — not just the chairman and vice chairman — be confirmed by the Senate.
The House version would also remove the board from the executive office of the president but keep it within the executive branch and give it subpoena power. The Senate version would keep the board within the executive office and allow it to ask the attorney general to issue subpoenas, with notice to Congress required if a subpoena request was refused or modified.
The privacy board members declined to comment on the proposed legislation. But they have made it clear that they believe the board works effectively in its current structure and that it could alienate the president if members took on a more openly adversarial role.
Bush appointed Dinkins, a Republican, to chair the board. A longtime friend of the Bush family, she was treasurer of Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas, and she is a longtime partner in the law firm of Vinson & Elkins, where Gonzales was once a partner.
The panel's other GOP members are vice chairman Alan Raul, a Washington attorney, and former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Former Ambassador Francis Taylor is an independent.