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White House civil-liberties panel created in 2004, still hasn't met

Richard B. Schmitt / LA Times | February 22 2006

WASHINGTON — For Americans troubled by the prospect of federal agents eavesdropping on their phone conversations or combing through their Internet records, there is good news: A little-known board exists in the White House whose purpose is to ensure that privacy and civil liberties are protected in the fight against terrorism.

Someday, it might actually meet.

Initially proposed by the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was created by the intelligence overhaul that President Bush signed into law in December 2004.

More than a year later, it exists only on paper.

On Thursday, after months of delays, the Senate Judiciary Committee took a first step toward setting up the fledgling watchdog, approving the two lawyers Bush nominated to lead the panel. But it may take months before the board is up and running.

Critics say the delay shows the administration is going through the motions when it comes to civil liberties. The administration counters that vetting and presenting the nominees takes time.

"They have stalled in giving the board adequate funding. They have stalled in making appointments," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "It is apparent they are not taking this seriously."

The Sept. 11 commission also has expressed reservations about the commitment to the civil-liberties panel.

"We felt it was absolutely vital," said Thomas Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey who led the commission. "We had certainly hoped it would have been up and running a long time ago."

The delay is especially noteworthy in light of recent events. Some Republicans joined Democrats to delay renewal of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act because of civil-liberties concerns.

And the disclosure in December that Bush approved surveillance of certain U.S. residents' international communications without a court warrant has caused bipartisan dismay in Congress.

"Obviously, civil-liberties issues are critically important, and they have been to this president, especially after 9/11," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, adding that the White House had moved expeditiously to establish the board.

"We do not formally nominate until we are through the background investigation and the full vetting," Perino said. "It takes time to present those nominations to the Senate. But now that they have been confirmed, that is a good thing."

The board chairwoman is Carol Dinkins, a Houston lawyer who was a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration. A longtime friend of the Bush family, she was the treasurer for Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas, in 1994, and co-chairwoman of Lawyers for Bush-Cheney, which recruited Republican lawyers to handle legal battles after the November 2004 election.

Dinkins, a longtime partner in the Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins, has specialized in defending oil and gas companies in environmental lawsuits.

Foremost among her credentials, she told Senate Judiciary Committee members in response to their questions, was the two years she spent as deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration. There, she said, she had to weigh civil-liberties concerns while overseeing domestic surveillance and counterintelligence cases.

The board vice chairman is Alan Charles Raul, a Washington lawyer who first suggested the concept of a civil-liberties panel in an opinion article in the Los Angeles Times in December 2001. Raul, a former Agriculture Department general counsel currently in private practice, has published a book on privacy and the digital age.

The panel's lone Democrat, Lanny Davis, has known Bush since the two were undergraduates at Yale. Civil-liberties groups regard the Washington lawyer, who worked in the Clinton White House, as likely to be a progressive voice on the panel.

The board also includes a conservative Republican legal icon, Washington lawyer and former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The fifth member is Francis Taylor, a retired Air Force general and former State Department counterterrorism coordinator, who is currently chief security officer at General Electric

The board members declined to comment for this article.

The idea of such a watchdog agency was broached almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, as conservatives and liberals alike saw a need for the government to consider the implications of new anti-terrorism measures.

The idea was to have professionals ask hard questions about whether the government was going too far in collecting and disseminating information about terrorism suspects, and to have those professionals make their views known in regular reports to the president.

The board was given a broad mandate to review and report to the president on the civil-liberties effects of proposed regulations and executive-branch policies related to the war on terrorism.

Civil-liberties groups said they saw it as a promising step.

"The board has the potential to be an important force in protecting civil liberties if the White House gives the board a role in the policy-making process, as Congress intended," the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based advocacy group, wrote at the time the overhaul was passed.

The Bush administration waited nine months to send the nominations of Dinkins and Raul to the Senate for approval. The three other members of the board did not require Senate confirmation, but they could not function without a chairman.

Doubts about funding also developed. The administration proposed an initial budget of $750,000, which lawmakers doubled. Critics consider that far from adequate.

The fiscal 2007 budget that the administration released earlier this month includes no express mention of any funding for the panel. That triggered a letter of protest from Maloney and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., to the Office of Management and Budget.

An office spokesman, Scott Milburn, said money was being requested for the board, but he declined to say how much.

Congress, which had championed the idea of the board, also dragged its heels. Dinkins and Raul were nominated in September, when the Senate Judiciary Committee was busy with a Supreme Court nomination. The panel held a confirmation hearing in November, but only two of the 18 members showed up.

The committee finally approved Dinkins and Raul on Thursday without discussion. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said his panel moved as quickly as possible considering its other duties.

The top Judiciary Committee Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said in an interview: "They seem to be good people. They have done good things in their lives. But they certainly don't bring any special expertise to what I consider to be an extremely challenging position."

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