Privacy watchdogs urge probe of spying program

By Andrew Noyes

December 5, 2006

Civil liberties watchdogs on Tuesday urged a federal advisory committee to aggressively investigate the Bush administration's program of wiretapping without warrants, arguing that oversight is only effective when the truth prevails and not deference to those in power.

The White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by a 2004 intelligence law, has been criticized since its inception for being a dependent part of the very branch of government it is supposed to oversee. The panel has met privately 16 times, but Tuesday's session, still going at deadline, was its first public forum aimed at soliciting comments from nongovernmental individuals and organizations with an interest and expertise in the topic.

Caroline Fredrickson, the American Civil Liberties Union's top lobbyist, said the group's first order of business should be to review how the National Security Agency and other federal agencies target innocent citizens or other lawful residents with anti-terrorism efforts.

She urged the board to hold public hearings and publish reports that pertain to key privacy and civil liberties issues raised by new anti-terrorism efforts, and asked the members to "candidly advise the president" on the legality and propriety of permitting government agencies to contract with private companies for eavesdropping and mining databases for information.

Fredrickson also said the board should examine the implications of government watch lists, the growing number of names on the lists, and the constitutional and legal implications for being put on them.

American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene said watch lists must not be used as "black lists" to prevent certain people from being considered for jobs or government benefits. The lists should only be utilized in situations where "decisions must be made quickly and grave consequences would follow from failure to screen out a listed person."

Last week's revelation of the so-called Automated Targeting System, which rates passengers based on risk, showed that the government's use of watch lists is "even more expansive than we had imagined," Keene said. The administration must act quickly to apply limits for the use of watch lists and adopt measures safeguarding the rights of those who seek to clear their names, he added.

Frederickson called the panel's public forum a welcome first step but said it was long overdue. "Our democracy is at risk when unprecedented threats to privacy and civil liberties undertaken in the name of the war on terror go unanswered and unchecked."

She added, "Clearly you've been fiddling while Rome burns."

Former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., an outspoken critic of the board who attended the meeting, said the panel "does not seem poised to provide independent or objective advice to truly protect Americans' constitutional rights."

Board Chairwoman Carol Dinkins said the meeting was not a stand-alone event but rather the beginning of an ongoing discussion.

The group also heard from: Indiana University cyber-security guru Fred Cate; James Dempsey, a member of the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age; Electronic Privacy Information Center Executive Director Marc Rotenberg; Ohio State University privacy expert Peter Swire; and others.

By Andrew Noyes

December 5, 2006