ACLU Renews Call for Strong Civil Liberties Board in Intelligence Reform, Says Increased Government Powers Intensify Need For Independent Review

October 26, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today renewed its call to lawmakers to ensure that a strong civil liberties board is created and government openness is maintained as the House, the Senate and the White House seek to hammer out a compromise on intelligence reform legislation. The 9/11 Commission specifically called for those provisions, and though they were included in the Senate bill, the administration and the House leadership have vehemently opposed their inclusion in the final intelligence reform legislation.

“The 9/11 Commission was correct when it saw the need to have a strong, independent review board to protect our civil liberties,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director. “This administration seems determined to increase the powers of intelligence and law enforcement agencies with nothing more than a token nod to the civil liberties that are an essential part of our free society.”

In its recommendations, the 9/11 Commission stated that: “At this time of increased and consolidated government authority, there should be a board within the executive branch to oversee adherence to the guidelines we recommend and the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties.”

The ACLU has praised the independent “Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board” created in the Senate bill. It would act as a watchdog empowered to perform aggressive investigation and oversight into complaints of civil liberties violations and abuse by the newly restructured intelligence agencies. The ACLU has also praised the Senate bill for including strong internal watchdogs – including an officer for civil liberties, a privacy officer, and an Inspector General – within each agency in the intelligence community and in the National Intelligence Director’s office.

The House bill, on the other hand, would only provide a nominal check on government abuses. The House leadership blocked efforts to strengthen government oversight, and it instead passed a bill that relies only on “privacy officers” with little independence or authority.

In an executive order issued in late August, the White House created a new “President’s Board on Safeguarding Americans’ Civil Liberties.” The ACLU has raised serious concerns about the White House board, calling it “the fox guarding the henhouse.” Based in the Justice Department, the board is chaired by the deputy attorney general and co-chaired by the undersecretary of border security and transportation at the Homeland Security Department. It is composed “exclusively” of senior administration officials, the vast majority of whom are political appointees of the Bush administration. It has no investigative authority and only advises the president on policy.

“The House leadership and the White House want to vastly increase the government’s power with little additional accountability,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Their proposals are nothing more than window-dressing and an attempt to appease Americans’ rightful fears of unchecked government power run amok.”

The Senate bill also contains language that would make public the “top line” of the intelligence budget – a move long called for by civil liberties and government openness groups. Such a move would not detail the specific breakdown of intelligence spending, but would inform the American public how many of their tax dollars are being allocated to intelligence operations.

For more on the ACLU’s concerns with Congress’s implementation of the 9/11 Commission’s findings, go to:

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