A coalition of privacy groups are calling on lawmakers to fill the vacant positions on the government’s surveillance oversight board, which hasn’t fully functioned in almost two years.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, known as PCLOB, is a little-known but important group that helps to ensure that intelligence agencies and executive branch policies are falling within the law. The board’s work allows them to have access to classified programs run by the dozen-plus intelligence agencies and determine if they’re legal and effective, while balancing Americans’ privacy and civil liberties rights.
But the board fell out of quorum early last year, leaving one remaining member. After the former chair stepped down, three further members left the board due to an expiring term, a retirement, and for a position in the Trump administration, putting PCLOB’s work largely on ice.
A report by The Intercept said, citing obtained emails, that the board was “basically dead,” but things were looking up when President Trump earlier this year picked a bipartisan range of five nominees for the board, including a computer science and policy professor and a former senior Justice Department lawyer named in March. If confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the newly appointed members would put the board back into full swing.
Except the committee has dragged its feet. Hearings have only been heard on three nominees, but a vote has yet to be scheduled.
A total of 31 privacy organizations and rights groups, including the ACLU, Open Technology Institute and the Center for Democracy & Technology signed on to the letter calling on the senate panel to push forward with the hearings and vote on the nominees.
“During the eleven years since Congress created the PCLOB as an independent agency, it has only operated with a quorum for four and one-half years,” the letter said. “Without a quorum, the PCLOB cannot issue oversight reports, provide the agency’s advice, or build upon the agency foundations laid by the original members. It is also critical that the PCLOB operate with a full bipartisan slate of qualified individuals.”
The coalition called the lack of quorum a “lost opportunity to better inform the public and facilitate Congressional action.”
Given the continuing aftermath of the massive leak of classified documents by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the board’s work is more important than ever, the letter said.
Spokespeople for the Senate Judiciary Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Corrected on August 30: to clarify the fourth paragraph regarding the remaining board member’s role.