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Low-profile advisory board adds fuel to snooping debate

The board recommending the shuttering of one of the National Security Agency’s most controversial governmental data collection programs actually has no power to do so but its report issued Thursday is certain to add fuel to the debate over the government’s surveillance reach. 

Congress created the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board as an advisory panel in 2007 to make recommendations on how to balance privacy concerns with the need for vigorous counter-terrorism efforts. 

It was largely inactive until last summer when, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations on surveillance, Obama met with the board and asked them to review “where our counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension.”

The law gives the president the power to appoint members to the board but says no more than three can be from his political party.  The board’s chairman is its only full-time member; the other four are part-timers. The five members, all of whom are lawyers, are:

  • Chairman David Medine, who served in the Clinton White House and had served in the 1990s at the Federal Trade Commission, specializing in privacy matters.
  • Retired federal appeals court Judge Patricia Wald, appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Wald also served in the Justice Department in the Carter administration.
  • James Dempsey, vice president at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington think tank that says it promotes policies “that will keep the Internet open, innovative, and free.”
  • Rachel Brand, chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the litigation arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Brand served in the Justice Department during the Bush administration and helped prepare John Roberts and Samuel Alito for their confirmation hearings.
  • Elisebeth Cook, a lawyer in private practice in Washington who served as Republican chief counsel for Supreme Court nominations on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She also served in the Justice Department during the Bush Administration.

The board is set to release shortly a separate report about another part of the NSA’s operations which monitors electronic communications, including content of messages, of foreign terrorist suspects outside the United States whose communications flow through American data networks.