Privacy and Civil Liberties Board Goes Soft on NSA Spying

by Matt Klassen on July 8, 2014

Created in the wake of 9/11 the independent and bipartisan U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was tasked with a twofold mandate: 1) To balance the protection of national security with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties, and 2) ensure liberty concerns are appropriately considered in the development and implementation of national security efforts. It’s a laudable mission, at least on paper, as the Board provides much needed checks and balances (at least in theory) to a national security landscape dominated by ever-present fear and controlled by unbridled technology.

But given the regular revelations from intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden one has to wonder where the PCLOB has been throughout this process, as it seems the NSA and other security agencies have been running roughshod over privacy and civil liberties (not to mention international treaties), invading the privacy of people both at home and abroad with reckless abandon; controversial and often illegal actions that one would think the PCLOB might have something to say about.

Well have no fear folks, your privacy and liberty are in good hands, as the PCLOB recently released a report (PDF) regarding its stance on the NSA’s ongoing surveillance tactics. But where one might think such a bipartisan and independently operated bureaucratic body might come out firing against such blatant violations of the privacy and liberty of U.S. citizens, the board took a decidedly different tack, largely supporting the NSA in its operations, stating that the collection of information under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act “has been valuable and effective in protecting the nation’s security and producing useful foreign intelligence.”

While supporting the NSA’s intelligence gathering as a necessary and integral part of maintaining America’s national security, the board did acknowledge that privacy concerns have been raised, not about the NSA’s seemingly carte blanche authority to tap anyone, anywhere, but about the “implementation” of its intelligence collection mandate, meaning that there’s nothing wrong with what the NSA is doing, the only thing wrong is how its being perceived.

To combat what the PCLOB considers to be nothing more than a public relations matter, the board offered ten policy recommendations to help strengthen privacy safeguards, an implicit acknowledgement that such safeguards actually do something to restrain or restrict the NSA’s intelligence collection habits.

As one might expect, the PCLOB has been widely condemned for its inability to hold America’s intelligence sector to account, as its become abundantly clear that the very system of checks and balances put in place to regulate American national security actions against invading privacy or trampling on liberty has failed in truly the only instance its really been necessary since its inception.

It “is a very weak report” that “fails to fully grasp the significance of allowing the government to conduct surveillance on a massive scale, to store the communications of millions of Americans in databases, and to let the government search those databases without adequate restrictions,” Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, told TechNewsWorld.

While the board defends the NSA’s controversial PRISM data collection program as necessary to preserve American national security, the reality seems to be that its really not protecting us from anything, as despite claims that such information has thwarted upwards of 50 possible terrorist attacks, the real number, it seems, is one.

Initially established as an answer to the Roman poet Juvenal’s age old question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watch-men?) the truly unfortunate thing about the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is that it doesn’t seem to be able to watch anybody, as it has allowed national security to do the one thing the board was created to prevent, run roughshod over our privacy and liberty.

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