The White House over the past several days has launched a public relations offensive to convince Americans that, under President Obama’s leadership, privacy and Fourth Amendment rights won’t be sacrificed in the name of national .
The administration took a major step in that effort Friday, as Mr. Obama met for the first time with the newly revived Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a decade-old panel that had been dormant for the entirety of his presidency.
The meeting, hyped by administration officials as proof that the president is committed to having a debate on how to balance national security with privacy rights, was held behind the closed doors of the White House Situation Room, and details of the meeting have yet to be released.
But officials also are making their publicly. On Sunday morning, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of the embattled National Security Agency, tried to reassure the public that the federal government’s data-collection programs — revealed publicly earlier this month by former NSA employee Edward Snowden, now on the run and believed to be in Moscow — are subject to proper oversight and are vital to protecting the nation.
“We get oversight by [the Justice Department]; we get oversight by the courts; we get oversight by the administration and by Congress, all three parts of government,” Gen. Alexander said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “We follow the laws and we defend this nation. … We’ve got to move this debate from a political debate to a debate on national security, because that’s what we’re talking about … the security of this country.”
Taken as a whole, the recent steps show an aggressive attempt by the White House to reclaim the narrative in the ongoing privacy versus security debate, which largely has been driven by critics of the president, the media and by self-proclaimed “whistleblowers” such as Mr. Snowden.
By resurrecting the privacy watchdog panel, Mr. Obama is committing himself to that privacy-security debate and will help to lead it, according to the White House.
“It will be part of a process,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Friday, adding that the meeting will be the first of several sit-downs that also will include lawmakers and other stakeholders.
But critics question why the White House waited so long to put the privacy board back together.
“Here’s my answer: They didn’t see this as enough,” said Lanny Davis, special counsel to President Clinton and a member of the first incarnation of the privacy board.
He was appointed to the panel by President George W. Bush but resigned after being treated more like “White House staff” than an independent watchdog, Mr. Davis said.
In 2008, the board was revamped as a fully independent agency, presumably to it from the political pressures of the White House.
Those changes resulted in the near-death of the group. It languished without a full complement of members for five years.
Mr. Obama didn’t nominate anyone to the board until December 2010, and didn’t offer a full five-member contingent until late 2011.
The board’s new chairman, David Medine, former associate director of the Federal Commission, wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until last month, despite being nominated 18 months earlier.
The other four members were confirmed last August, but they were in limbo until Mr. Medine was approved as chairman.
Congress surely deserves part of the blame for not confirming Mr. Obama’s nominees more quickly. But that doesn’t change the fact that the board, had it been fully functional and had the White House pushed it more aggressively, could have fulfilled a critical mission, Mr. Davis said
“They should’ve been in place. What they might have been able to do is persuade the [National Security Agency] and the White House to get their story out about how their [surveillance] programs are,” Mr. Davis said.
In the absence of an active board, the administration allowed Mr. Snowden — a government contractor who leaked classified information on NSA programs to media outlets and now faces espionage charges — to control the debate.
Still, the privacy board’s revival is better late than never, Mr. Davis said.
“The president’s decision to meet with them, even if it’s late in happening, is important and [Mr. Obama] should be credited for that,” he said.
In addition to Mr. Medine, the other members of the board are: James Dempsey, vice president of public policy for the Center of Democracy and ; Rachel Brand, chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former Justice Department official; Elisabeth Collins Cook, former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department; and Patricia Wald, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.