Thursday, August 11, 2005

Eight Months Later, Civil Liberties Watchdog Group Remains "Toothless, Underfunded Shell"

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, ordered by Congress last year to protect individual rights that might be violated by the USA Patriot Act or other government actions during the "war on terror," has failed to meet.

According to an Aug. 4 story by Reuters, a growing chorus of Democrats and Republicans are criticizing the Bush Admistration's lack of support in getting the board up and running, calling it a "toothless, underfunded shell."

Asked why the board has failed to meet, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) charged, "It's not a priority for the administration."


The intelligence reform law of December 2004 called for the oversight board in response to a recommendation from the Sept. 11 Commission, which feared increased governmental powers needed to fight terrorism could erode civil liberties.

But almost eight months after its inception, the panel still only exists on paper. Critics say the main reason for the delay was President Bush, who took six months to appoint four Republicans and one Democrat to the board -- even though other, more complex recommendations from the commission were acted on more quickly.

White House officials have said the board would address the commission's concerns, and get the resources needed to do the job. But those sentiments appear, thus far, to be little more than empty spin.

One problem is money. The Bush Administration requested $750,000 to fund the panel. Congress doubled that figure to $1.5 million -- but that still leaves it with less funding than what the new federal highway bill allocates to construct a garage on the campus of Lipscomb University, a private school in Nashville affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

By comparison, the Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog office has a $13 million budget.

"I don't think you can do it for a million and a half," Shays told Reuters.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) have written the White House expressing concerns about the board's budget, as well as delays in setting it up.

"As we work to make America safer, it is equally important that we are careful to preserve the very liberties that we seek to protect," Collins told Reuters. "The board is critical in this regard."


There are also questions about what whether the board will have teeth.

"(It) is a very watered-down board without the kinds of powers which I believe are necessary to provide credibility and authority, such as independent subpoena power," Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Sept. 11 commissioner, told Reuters.

Shays, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and other lawmakers have proposed an amendment granting the panel greater independence and powers, including subpoena authority.

Right now, Maloney said, "It does not have teeth. It does not have enforcement. It does not have strength behind it."


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