ACLU Calls Proposed Bush Liberties Board Fox Guarding Henhouse; Urges Congress to Create Effective, Powerful Oversight

August 30, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged Congress to reject the model for a civil liberties oversight board laid out in a new executive order. Despite the president’s laudable attention to these matters, the board as proposed would be comprised only of the government officials it is meant to oversee, would have no investigative authority and would be utterly beholden to the White House.

“There is a real danger that this will be worse than useless,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director. “Not only will it provide the illusion of oversight without any real power to effect change, its membership includes some of the very people in the national security establishment who are part of the problem. Missing are any independent voices who are not beholden to the president or the political establishment.”

“It really would be the fox guarding the henhouse,” Romero added.

The executive order was released last week as part of a package of new presidential policies to implement certain recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It would create the new “President’s Board on Safeguarding Americans’ Civil Liberties.”

Based in the Justice Department, the board would be chaired by the deputy attorney general and co-chaired by the undersecretary of border security and transportation at the Homeland Security Department. It would be composed “exclusively” of senior administration officials, the vast majority of whom are political appointees of the Bush administration.

It would have no subpoena or other investigative authority and would be solely empowered to advise and recommend on policy to the president.

It could also “periodically request” reports from different federal agencies related to policies and procedures that implicate civil liberties. And, agency heads would be able to ask the board to consider policies that they might be uncomfortable with. If the chair and vice-chair agree, however, even these outside requests can be ignored.

“While we appreciate the president’s attention to these crucial matters, we fear this may be an attempt to avoid doing something real,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.

In all, the president’s panel is a far cry from the civil liberties board envisioned by the 9/11 Commission. In addition, its lack of independence from the White House will actually create civil liberties problems, the ACLU said, by creating the appearance of oversight where there is none. Congress should move immediately to create its own civil liberties watchdog, the ACLU said. It should be fully independent from the executive branch, have full subpoena powers, be composed of experts in both security policy and constitutional law and be adequately resourced.

“Given the 9/11 Commission’s call for drastic changes in how the government does its spying, both here and abroad, effective oversight is absolutely essential,” said Charlie Mitchell, ACLU Legislative Counsel.

For additional information, see the ACLU’s analysis of the 9/11 Commission’s Recommendations at:
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