WASHINGTON – For months, two review panels given nearly identical assignments by President Barack Obama have been studying how the White House should change or limit the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. They have functioned separately — with different experts and private and public hearings — but with almost the same mandate.
So it was at least a little surprising when the first panel, which recommended changes to NSA's programs this week, urged the White House to abolish the second panel and replace it with a new one.
Among 46 recommendations spelled out in a 300-page document released Wednesday by the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is a proposal to scrap the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which plans to issue its own report on NSA surveillance in January.
The review group concluded that the independent oversight board, which is authorized only to look into matters dealing with counterterrorism and intelligence, should also consider all foreign intelligence issues. To do this, the review group urged creation of a completely new oversight board — a move that would require new legislation since Congress set up the existing one.
The new board, the review group said, "should have broad authority to review government activity relating to foreign intelligence and counterterrorism whenever that activity has implications for civil liberties and privacy."
The chairman of the oversight board, David Medine, said Thursday the review group recommendation was worth considering. Medine said that, speaking for himself, he thinks a larger role for the board would require a greater government investment in staff and resources. The board currently has four part-time members and five staffers.
The original oversight board, which was created from a 9/11 Commission recommendation, was designed to be an independent agency not completely tied to the White House or Congress. The board's members are appointed by the president but they report to Congress.
The review group's five members were appointed by Obama and reported directly to him through National Intelligence Director James Clapper. While the oversight board headed by Medine has mixed all-day hearings open to the public with classified meetings with intelligence officials, the review group did all its work in secret and was exempted by Clapper from standard public access requirements.
"The review group clearly recognized that the government needs more watchdogging than PCLOB's oversight just into counterterrorism," said Greg Nojem, a senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group.
The review group even suggested a similarly unwieldy title to replace the oversight board's already weighty name: The Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board, or CLPP.
Medine was less enthused about that possibility, worried that the CLPP board could be derisively referred to as "clipboard."