Elisebeth B. Collins Misrepresents Privacy And Civil Liberties Oversight Board In Testimony To Senate
Earlier this month, Republican Senator Tom Cotton introduced S. 1339, legislation that would make permanent the extraordinary electronic surveillance powers of the FISA Amendments Act (also often referred to as “the 702 program”), even though the FISA Amendments Act was supposed to expire many years ago.
This week, Elisebeth B. Collins testified in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that there isn’t any big problem with the FISA Amendments Act. She told the committee, “I provide this testimony in my capacity as an individual Board Member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent Executive Branch agency charged with providing advice and oversight with respect to federal counterterrorism actions. From 2013 to 2014, our five-member, bipartisan board conducted an extensive examination of the 702 program.”
Although this statement, which served as the foundation of the rest of the testimony that Collins gave to the committee, was technically true, it was profoundly misleading. The difference between what Elisebeth Collins told the Senate Judiciary Committee and what has actually been going on with the FISA Amendments Act and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board goes a long way toward explaining why S. 1339 should not be passed, and the FISA Amendments Act should be allowed at long last to expire.
It is true that Elisebeth B. Collins is a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. What Collins didn’t tell the Senate is that she is the only member of that board. What’s more, Collins is only a part-time member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
While the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board used to be bipartisan, it isn’t bipartisan any more. It can’t be, because the Collins is the only member of the board. Elisebeth Collins didn’t come to the Senate Judiciary Committee to speak for the
Elisebeth refers to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board as a “five-member” organization, but Collins knows very well that this structure is merely theoretical. For the most of the history of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, most of the seats have been vacant. At present, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has four vacant seats.
One of the vacant seats on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is the seat of the board’s chair. This particular vacancy means that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board can neither hire staff nor spend money. As the Elizabeth Goitein Co-Director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center For Justice at the New York University School Of Law reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, “The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has lost its chairman and three other members, and is effectively dormant.”
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has only had the membership and the resources required to do its job for three out of the nine years since the FISA Amendments Act was passed. So, the “extensive examination of the 702 program” that Elisebeth Collins refers to repeatedly in her testimony was in fact nothing of the sort. Genuinely extensive examination of the use of the FISA Amendments Act would have begun with the very first use of the FISA Amendments Act, and continued after the initial report. That’s not at all what happened.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has been consistently thwarted and undermined in its work. It is at present almost completely nonfunctional, and there are no plans in place to bring it back into operation. Yet, Elisebeth Collins never mentioned these problems at the Senate Judiciary hearing this week. In fact, she acted as if the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is a fully functioning organization that the American people can count on to check the extreme unconstitutional powers of the FISA Amendments Act.
Why would Collins contribute to this charade?
Before Elisebeth Collins become the single member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, with sole responsibility over judging whether the FISA Amendments Act is violating the Constitution, she was a lobbyist pushing for extreme surveillance and other totalitarian actions by the federal government.
Elisebeth Collins advocated for undercover surveillance and infiltration of American political groups without probable cause to believe crimes are being committed. She assisted Attorney General Michael Mukasey in stalling and blocking investigations of torture. Collins opposed the right of journalists to remain silent regarding their sources. She also was a government advocate for the collection of DNA samples from all people detained on mere suspicion of immigration violation — not people who have actually violated immigration status, and not people who have actually committed any crime.
Elisebeth Collins worked at WilmerHale, a lobbying firm representing corporate interests in government surveillance programs.
For Elisebeth Collins to have the sole authority to protect the American people from the unconstitutional abuses of the FISA Amendments Act tells you what the “702 program” is really all about. The fox is guarding the henhouse.
Not one single member of the Senate Judiciary Committee challenged Elisebeth Collins on her misrepresentation of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Not one senator asked the obvious question: Why has the single watchdog organization given the task to protect Americans from massive under the FISA Amendments Act been allowed to fall apart, with only one part-time board member, a former advocate and lobbyist against Americans’ constitutional rights?
When a question this obvious isn’t even asked, you know that the fix is in.