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Privacy Board To Scrutinize Surveillance Programs


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Just after Edward Snowden first leaked secrets about government surveillance, he gave an interview to two journalists while he was hiding out in Hong Kong. Yesterday, The Guardian newspaper released more of that interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

GREENE: In that video, Snowden discusses why he exposed the surveillance programs.


EDWARD SNOWDEN: I grew up with the understanding that the world I lived in was one where people enjoyed a sort of freedom to communicate with each other in privacy without it being monitored. Without it being measured or analyzed or sort of judged by these shadowy figures or systems any time they mention anything that travels across public lines.

GREENE: That's Edward Snowden. His leaks have had a big impact on the National Security Agency and we'll hear more about that in just a moment.

MONTAGNE: Now, the unmasked surveillance programs are facing scrutiny from a new government board. It was established to police civil liberties and privacy after 9/11. The group will hold a workshop in Washington, D.C., hearing from experts, supporters and detractors of the government surveillance efforts. NPR's Larry Abramson has this look at the board.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: This is the second incarnation of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The first came after the biggest privacy brouhaha of the Bush years -the revelation of that administration's warrantless wiretapping effort. Washington attorney Lanny Davis was on that first board. He only learned about the wiretapping program when it was exposed by a leak to the New York Times. So Davis and his colleagues demanded a briefing, and the White House said no.

LANNY DAVIS: Rather than accepting that we said, either we get briefed or we're out of here.

ABRAMSON: The board got its briefing. The members concluded there were very strong safeguards in place, but they urged Congress to strengthen legal oversight of the program. That eventually did happen, but the board itself collapsed. Lanny Davis, a Democrat, said the board could not be truly independent, since it was officially part of the White House.

So he resigned. That led to a multi-year hiatus as Congress redesigned the board and new members were appointed. Davis says he did not anticipate such a long delay.

DAVIS: If anyone had told me in 2007 it would take five years under a Democratic president to appoint a new board, I would not have resigned.

ABRAMSON: Congress made the board an independent agency. So, just what can this body accomplish, and whose side is it on? Truth is there are already privacy officers all over the federal government: the NSA has one, so do the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

But even if any of them had concerns about these surveillance programs, they would not have been in a position to discuss those issues in public. Peter Swire was privacy counselor to President Clinton, the only person to ever hold that title. He says insiders can prevent missteps.

PETER SWIRE: Before a rule is drafted, you have privacy insight, and the privacy official can develop allies to explain why issues are important and why changes should be made.

ABRAMSON: But once programs are in place, Swire says an insider cannot break ranks, and go public.

SWIRE: We used to say I could go public exactly once - in my resignation letter.

ABRAMSON: The new Privacy Board is made of five lawyers, one a former appeals court judge. It is now independent, but it has an insider view, thanks to several classified briefings on these programs. At the same time, Board Chair David Medine says, he and his four colleagues do represent the public's concerns.

DAVID MEDINE: The 9/11 commission and President Obama have said, and I certainly believe, that we can have both strong security and strong protections on privacy and civil liberty, and our job is to try to maximize both.

ABRAMSON: So what if that means the Privacy Board looks at these surveillance efforts and says, they're legal and quite above board? Michelle Richardson of the American Civil Liberties Union admits, for her group, that would be tough to take.

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: If the board does endorse these programs, it's going to a big hit for privacy and civil liberties.

ABRAMSON: Richardson says that the media actually did the Board a big favor. Before the leaks, the Board would have had to worry about disclosing the existence of these top secret programs.

RICHARDSON: And so they can proceed in a public manner and now have a debate that wouldn't have happened prior to the leaks.

ABRAMSON: Instead, the initial challenge for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is to gain the trust of both the public and the intelligence community, and push the debate forward. Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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