This morning, you may feel like wearing a tin-foil hat to protect yourself, and such an act wouldn’t be entirely kooky. Yesterday, leaks to newspapers revealed that the United States government has not only been seizing the records of billions of phone calls taking place inside and outside the United States, but also has been tapping directly in to the internet servers of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Skype and AOL, all (according to the Washington Post) without the knowledge or permission of the internet giants. This leaked classified image from the National Security Agency shows the start dates for the massive data surveillance.
According to this schedule, government surveillance of Microsoft internet servers began under the presidency of George W. Bush, but the majority of the surveillance programs began and have continued under the watch of President Barack Obama (who promised as a candidate that he would reform, not expand, the government’s warrantless surveillance program).
Something else started under George W. Bush, something that would have been able to bring this kind of activity to our attention long ago. That something is the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Under a federal law passed in the 110th Congress, the PCLOB is empowered to obtain confidential documents and testimony under independent subpoena power in order to investigate abuses of our constitutionally-protected civil liberties by the United States government, and to report on such abuses twice a year to both Congress and the public. The PCLOB could have ferreted out and reported these assaults against Americans’ civil liberty — if it had existed.
Although the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board existed in hypothetical terms, it was not until 2012 that President Barack Obama got around to actually nominating members of the board. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee sat on the nominations. Then, when four of five members of the PCLOB were confirmed, the position of the Chairman was left unfilled, guaranteeing that the board could neither hire staff nor make any decisions.
Taken together, all these failures to act guaranteed that from the moment President Barack Obama took office until … when? … the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was either nonexistent or stymied, with years of evidence uncollected, with 9 biannual reports to the public unwritten and unreleased, with massive warrantless surveillance enterprises against the American people unexposed.
In a coda to this story, David Medine was finally confirmed as Chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board one month ago today, May 7 2013. Finally, a full 1,569 days after Barack Obama was sworn into office as President, the Privacy and Civil Oversight Board exists and is functional. Whether it actually fulfills its functions remains to be seen.