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Head of revived watchdog pledges open look at U.S. surveillance

A woman holds up a sign at a support rally for Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), in New York June 19, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer
A woman holds up a sign at a support rally for Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), in New York June 19, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of a newly revived federal privacy oversight board pledged on Wednesday to be "as transparent and public as possible" as the board reviews recently exposed U.S. government secret surveillance programs.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which has been largely dormant since 2008, held its first full-fledged meeting on Wednesday after the Senate confirmed David Medine as its chairman last month.

The meeting was behind closed doors to review classified information about the vast and controversial Internet and phone monitoring programs. But Medine told Reuters that the board is aiming to hold a public event around July 9 to get legal insight from experts, academics and advocates.

"Based on what we've learned so far, the board believes further questions are warranted," said Medine, who previously was a partner at the law firm WilmerHale and served as an associate director at the Federal Trade Commission.

Still without formal email, a website or permanent staff, the five board members have in recent weeks acquired security clearances and last week, received a classified briefing with federal authorities including the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence, Medine said.

The top-secret surveillance programs were revealed earlier this month after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents to media outlets showing how the U.S. government uses vast amounts of phone and internet records to guard against potential attacks.

The Obama administration and high-profile lawmakers have defended the programs as vital national security tools that are vigorously overseen by the administration, Congress and a special court.

Privacy advocates have argued they infringe on Americans' civil liberties and say the oversight is insufficient.

Obama said earlier this week that he plans to meet with the privacy board to discuss ways to balance the need for U.S. surveillance with privacy concerns.

The board, established at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission in 2004, is an independent watchdog that resides within the executive branch and is tasked with ensuring that U.S. anti-terrorism activity respects Americans' privacy.

A civil liberties advocate said the board will largely be charting new territory with its review.

"The board has been defunct for so long, so I don't think that we have any precedent for how something like this plays out," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The president nominates members to the bipartisan board, who must then be confirmed by the Senate. President Barack Obama did not nominate his first two choices until December 2010, then a year later put forward three more names.

Beside Medine, the other current members are: Rachel Brand, former lawyer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at the Justice Department; Elisebeth Collins Cook, a lawyer and former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department; James Dempsey, former public policy vice president at the Center for Democracy and Technology; and Patricia Wald, a former federal appeals court judge.

FIGHT FOR ACCESS

Medine withheld judgment on Wednesday about the surveillance programs, saying the board will continue to study them and eventually issue a report and recommendations.

He did not speculate on the timing but pledged to be "as transparent and public about these issues as possible."

Both he and civil liberties advocates acknowledge the board's transparency is limited by the classified status of much of the data about the programs. But Medine said Obama has asked the government to declassify as much as possible.

A 2007 law restructured the board to be independent of the White House and gave it power to request subpoenas for the private sector. It also required all executive branch agencies to comply with the board's requests for reports, records and various other documents.

"We have been doing and plan to do it," Medine said, when asked whether the oversight board was exercising that power over federal agencies. "The executive branch has been very responsive to our requests," he added.

Civil liberties advocates are cautiously optimistic the board will shed more light on the surveillance programs.

"I think the key will be how fast can they staff up, how hard will they be willing to fight for the access to information and what type of leverage they'll be able to exercise to make more information public," said ACLU's Richardson.

The ACLU, in coalition with 33 other advocacy groups, on Tuesday wrote to Medine and his colleagues, seeking more transparency of the legal standards involved in the issue.

The letter, reviewed by Reuters on Wednesday, urged the board to ask Obama for public disclosure of sufficient information for Americans "to understand the existing legal authorities for national security surveillance of Americans and the administration's interpretation of their scope."

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Additional reporting by Matthew Haldane; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn)

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