Constitution Daily

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Panel to meet today in secret about the NSA

June 19, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


An oversight panel six years in the making will hear testimony on Wednesday in another secret proceeding involving the National Security Agency, government surveillance and the secret court known as FISC.

NSAlogoThe publicity over the U.S. government's surveillance of its citizens and foreign nationals isn’t dying down, as former CIA analyst Edward Snowden releases new allegations daily, and members of the Obama administration and Congress express anger about Snowden’s activities.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will have a rare session, behind closed doors, to discuss the classified surveillance program called PRISM and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The secret court that approves surveillance requests, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, was established under FISA, and it undoubtedly will be part of the discussion.

So how do we know all of this, if it’s all secret?

The Oversight board’s meeting notices are posted in the Federal Register, and an updated notice on Monday said that the hearing will be held on Wednesday.

A previous notice about the meeting was posted last week. It mentioned that the meeting notice was published under the Government in the Sunshine Act, but the public won’t be allowed at the meeting. It will be about five blocks away from the White House.

Already, doubts are being cast on the meeting, since the Oversight board is an independent agency within the Executive Branch.

On June 12, a group of 13 senators sent an open letter, asking the board to make “to take the necessary precautions to protect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens under the Constitution.”

The senators also acknowledged that they knew the board is newly formed and “still working toward being operational.”

The saga of the Oversight board’s development is unusual even for a place like Washington, where change can come slowly.

The board has five members who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Its first version goes back to July 22, 2004, when a report on terrorism let to the board’s inclusion into the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

The current board was created as an independent agency within the Executive Branch by the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.

Since 2007, the White House and Congress have tussled about the five nominees to serve on the board. The final nominee, board chairman David Medine, was finally approved by the Senate in May 2013.

Without a chairman, the board couldn’t hire staffers, so it has essentially been dormant since then.

According to the Federal Register, the meeting on Wednesday will be the board’s third meeting since 2007. It met in October 2012 and March 2013, with part of the meetings open to the public.

Medine told NBC News on June 7 that he has asked the NSA for a briefing on the surveillance issue. But the NBC story illustrated some short-term problems the board faces.

Medine didn’t even have his security clearance approved when he spoke with NBC, and the board had borrowed two staffers from other agencies to help start up its operations.

It also didn’t have a web site or a permanent office in Washington.

The Congressional Research Service said last year that the board saw its proposed budget cut from $2 million in 2008 to $1 million for 2013.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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