WASHINGTON (AP) — In an interview this week with television talk show host Charlie Rose, Obama said he planned to meet with the oversight board and "set up and structure a national conversation" about the NSA's surveillance programs and also "about the general problem of these big data sets because this is not going to be restricted to government entities."
The board's mandate includes privacy as well as national security concerns. In theory, it could veer into questions about how Internet companies such as Google and Facebook as well as hundreds of other data-mining companies deal with privacy and how government might regulate those entities.
But as Sharon Bradford Franklin, a senior counsel at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan civil liberties watchdog group, and other civil liberties experts said, the board's role is largely advisory, identifying problems and suggesting possible solutions.
The board has existed since 2004, first as part of the executive branch, then, after a legislative overhaul that took effect in 2008, as an independent board of presidential appointees reporting to Congress.
Hindered by Obama administration delays and then resistance from Republicans in Congress, the new board was not fully functional until May, when Medine was confirmed.
"They've been in startup mode a long time," Franklin said. "With all the concerns about the need for a debate on the issue of surveillance, this is a great opportunity for them to get involved."
"They have statutory authority in two main areas," Franklin said. "One is evaluating whether safeguards on civil liberties are adequate and the other is in transparency — informing the public and ensuring the government is more transparent."
But there are still limits on the group's independence when it comes to the public disclosure of classified material. While the board has leeway in scrutinizing classified material and referencing top secret documents, it can only make those materials public if they are first declassified by the government, said Lanny Davis, who was one of the first board's five members.
Davis resigned in 2007 over his concerns that the board was tied too closely to the executive branch. The group's first report included more than 200 changes by government lawyers. The controversy led to a congressional overhaul that made the board answerable to Congress instead of the White House.