President Obama is reviewing the possibility of declassifying more information about secret surveillance programs after news of the U.S. government’s spying dragnet stirred deep concerns about privacy in America and abroad.
On Friday, Obama will meet with the newly reconstituted Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, a quasi-independent agency made up of five individuals nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The board is required to report to Congress at least semi-annually.
The meeting will be the first in a series Obama and other members of his administration plan to hold with “a range of stakeholders” in the coming weeks in an effort to weigh the benefits of the counter-terrorism surveillance programs against the desire to protect individual civil liberties, according to a senior administration official.
The official said the board will also aim “to ensure that liberty concerns are appropriately considered in the development and implementation of law, regulations and policies related to efforts to protect the nation against terrorism.”
Obama vigorously defended U.S. surveillance program Wednesday during a visit to Germany, a country particularly sensitive to privacy concerns after the Nazi era and postwar surveillance in Communist East Germany. He said the U.S. PRISM spying program had foiled 50 terrorist plots, including some in Germany, but also noted that would try to find a way to declassify aspects of the program without compromising them.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she pressed Obama on the topic during a private meeting and stressed the need for “balance and proportionality” in using Internet and phone records to spy on people.
In the wake of the spying disclosures over the past few weeks, Obama has asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to declassify information to “better contextualize programs, correct misrepresentations, and provide an opportunity for the dialogue he welcomes about the right balance between national security and privacy,” the senior administration official said.
Following Obama’s request, Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, on Thursday also directed Clapper to consult with the Justice Department in a review of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions and filing relevant to the spying programs and determine what additional information the government can “responsibly share” about the “sensitive and necessary classified activities undertaken to keep the public safe,” the official said.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Board has five members: David Medine, a former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission who will serve as chairman; James Dempsey, vice president for the Center of Democracy and Technology; Rachel Brand, chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department; Elisabeth Collins Cook, former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department; Patricia Wald, a former chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
In addition to evaluating the broad privacy implications of the surveillance programs, the board will also focus on how the executive branch shares terrorism information among different federal government agencies and whether they adhere to guidelines designed to protect privacy and civil liberties.