THERE’S A LITTLE-KNOWN federal agency whose job is to ensure U.S. spy agencies protect privacy and other civil liberties even as they work to defeat terrorists and criminals, and to blow the whistle when that doesn’t happen. But the agency, known as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, is down to just a single voting member — which means it has been stripped of nearly all its powers, according to emails obtained by The Intercept.
The board was created by Congress in 2004, at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, to help the executive branch balance national security priorities with individual rights. After Bush administration officials heavilyedited PCLOB’s first report, one member resigned, and Congress in 2007 turned it into an independent agency and expanded its writ to include oversight of congressional action. Still, the board remained obscure; some members of Congress seemed unaware of its existence even as documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden produced more privacy scandals.
PCLOB is supposed to have five members, no more than three of whom come from the same political party; to employ a full-time chairperson; to have regular access to the 17 intelligence agencies; and to publish unclassified versions of its evaluations of U.S. espionage powers.
But with just one part-time board member left, after another member’s term ended last week, the agency has very few formal powers to police the so-called “deep state” until President Trump nominates a new board, the emails reveal. Without the statutory quorum of three members, PCLOB “may not initiate new advice or oversight projects” or offer advice to the intelligence community, according to a list drawn up by Jen Burita, PCLOB’s public affairs and legislative officer, and shared by email with several congressional staffers who had raised questions about the impact of the attrition among board members.