Sunday, March 05, 2006

What Ever Happened to the Civil Liberties Board?

What Ever Happened to the Civil Liberties Board?
Michael Isikoff

March 13, 2006 issue - For more than a year, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has been the most invisible office in the White House. Created by Congress in December 2004 as a result of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the board has never hired a staff or even held a meeting. Next week, NEWSWEEK has learned, that is due to finally change when the board's five members are slated to be sworn in at the White House and convene their first session. Board members tell NEWSWEEK the panel intends to immediately tackle contentious issues like the president's domestic wiretapping program, the Patriot Act and Pentagon data mining. But critics are furious the process has taken this long—and question whether the White House intends to treat the panel as anything more than window dressing. The delay is "outrageous, considering how long its been since the bill [creating the board] was passed," said Thomas Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission. "The administration was never interested in this."

Renewed concerns about the White House's commitment came just a few weeks ago when President Bush's new budget was released—with no listing for money for the civil liberties board. Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, denied to NEWSWEEK the White House was trying to kill the panel by starving it of funds. "It will be fully funded," he said, explaining that the board wasn't in the budget this year because officials decided not to itemize funding levels for particular offices within the White House. When a reporter pointed out that funding for other White House offices such as the National Security Council were listed in the budget, Conant said: "I have no explanation."

The funding snafu is only the latest setback. Kean said the 9/11 Commission had pushed hard for the board to ensure that some agency within the government would specifically review potential abuses at a time vastly expanded powers were being given to U.S. intel and law-enforcement agencies. But the White House, and congressional leaders, resisted and sharply restricted its scope, denying the board basic tools like subpoena power. Bush didn't nominate members of the board until June 2005—six months after the panel was created—and they weren't confirmed until last month. The chair of the board is Carol Dinkins, a former senior Justice official under Ronald Reagan and former law partner of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Dinkins did not respond to requests for comment.