Today's dog and pony show: Obama to meet with civil liberties board for the first time

He cares deeply about privacy rights in an age of surveillance, which is why this board that’s kinda sorta existed since 2004 and which Obama himself has never once consulted will now be granted a formal audience with His Highness.

A new federal blue-ribbon commission to brainstorm privacy “recommendations” can’t be long in coming now.

“I’ve set up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens including some fierce civil libertarians,” Obama told Charlie Rose in an interview that aired Monday. “I’ll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.”

The board, however, was funded eight years ago, and has remained largely powerless since then.

The panel was first suggested in the 2004 report by the 9/11 Commission, and was first launched that year. In 2007, the group was granted independent powers, but both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama resisted nominating members for years.

The panel operated without offices or staff for years, and the fifth and final member — Chairman David Medine — was only confirmed last month, by a narrow 53-45 party line vote.

He ran as the candidate of Hopenchange vis-a-vis Bush’s aggressive counterterrorism, then dropped the whole shtick so quickly and completely that he hasn’t gotten around to setting up even a fig-leaf civil libertarian oversight board until the fifth year of his presidency. The bit about a “national conversation” in the excerpt is a nice touch, too. One of the key lessons of the Snowden revelations and their aftermath is that there won’t be any meaningful debate on this topic because, for reasons of national security, O won’t declassify the nuts and bolts of how these programs work. We can navel-gaze in broad terms about whether they go too far, but what good is that when you don’t really know what you’re talking about? The “national conversation” is really a congressional conversation behind closed doors, and with a few exceptions like Ron Wyden and Rand Paul, no legislator is going to endorse scaling back programs like PRISM. No one wants to be the guy after a major terror attack who urged the government to do less surveillance beforehand. Especially O, which is precisely why he swapped Hopenchange for the national-security state after getting elected.

While we’re on the subject, spend some time with two new stories that somehow didn’t inspire a presidential visit to the civil liberties board until now. One is the Guardian’s latest revelation from Snowden about what NSA analysts can and can’t do without a warrant. They have broad powers when it comes to obtaining a foreigner’s communications, and if in the course of sifting a foreigner’s communications they “inadvertently” acquire communications from an American that contains usable intel or evidence of criminal activity, they can retain that. That makes some sense — if you’ve got a homegrown jihadi communicating with a bad guy overseas, obviously you want to know what they’re saying — but no one knows for sure how broad the “usable” intel loophole goes and it’s unclear why a separate warrant shouldn’t be required to obtain and retain an American’s communuication. The second piece, which I find more interesting because it shows how deep Obama’s famous obsession with secrecy goes, is this McClatchy expose of the White House’s “Insider Threat Program.” They’ve authorized federal agencies — and not just intelligence/defense agencies either — to be aggressive in going after leakers, even if they’ve only leaked non-classified information, and to keep an eye on employees who seem like they might potentially leak. That’s virtuous in the sense of discouraging damaging national-security disclosures and dangerous in that it makes it harder for legit whistleblowers who want to reveal illegal activity. What happens when you have a government where everyone’s afraid to speak up? Exit quotation from a CIA agent who quit after, she claims, she was falsely accused of being a security risk: “The real danger is that you get a bland common denominator working in the government… You don’t get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that’s really dangerous for national security.”