The first public meeting of a Bush administration "civil liberties protection panel" had a surreal quality to it, as the five-member board refused to answer any questions from the press, and stonewalled privacy advocates and academics on key questions about domestic spying.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which met Tuesday, was created by Congress in 2004 on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, but is part of the White House, which handpicked all the members. Though mandated by law in late 2004, the board was not sworn in until March 2006, due to inaction on the part of the White House and Congress.
The three-hour meeting, held at Georgetown University, quickly established that the panel would be something less than a fierce watchdog of civil liberties. Instead, members all but said they view their job as helping Americans learn to relax and love warrantless surveillance.
"The question is, how much can the board share with the public about the protections incorporated in both the development and implementation of those policies?" said Alan Raul, a Washington D.C. lawyer who serves as vice chairman. "On the public side, I believe the board can help advance national security and the rights of American by helping explain how the government safeguards U.S. personal information."
And--since each new outrage by the Bush administration tends to drive out memory of the last one--here's some context:
Federal agents continue to eavesdrop on Americans' electronic communications without warrants a year after President Bush confirmed the practice, and experts say a new Congress' efforts to limit the program could trigger a constitutional showdown.Feeing safer yet?
High-ranking Democrats set to take control of both chambers are mulling ways to curb the program Bush secretly authorized a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. The White House argues the Constitution gives the president wartime powers to eavesdrop that he wouldn't have during times of peace.
"As a practical matter, the president can do whatever he wants as long as he has the capacity and executive branch officials to do it," said Carl Tobias, a legal scholar at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Lawmakers could impeach or withhold funding, or quash judicial nominations, among other measures.
The president, however, can veto legislation, including a law demanding the National Security Agency obtain warrants before monitoring communications. Such a veto would force Congress to muster a two-thirds vote to override.
"He could take the position he doesn't have to comply with whatever a new Congress says," said Vikram Amar, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, and a former Supreme Court clerk.
Douglas Kmiec, a former Justice Department official under former presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, speculated the younger Bush would assert executive authority to continue eavesdropping in the face of new legislation - perhaps leaving the Supreme Court as the final arbiter. [...]
On Dec. 17, 2005, Bush publicly acknowledged for the first time he had authorized the NSA to monitor, without approval from a judge, phone calls and e-mails that come into or originate in the U.S. and involve people the government suspects of having terrorist links.
Bush said he had no intention of halting what he called a "vital tool" in the war on terror.
When the Republican-controlled Congress adjourned last week, it left the spying program unchecked. .