Senate Confirms Chair of Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board

05.08.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Almost a year and a half after he was nominated by President Obama in December 2011, the Senate yesterday confirmed David Medine to be the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board by a vote of 53-45.

Republicans, led by Sen. Charles Grassley, opposed the nominee and voted against him.

“I was disappointed that he failed to answer a basic yes-or-no question about national security law: ‘Do you believe that we are engaged in a war on terrorism?’,” Sen. Grassley said. “Instead of a simple yes or no, he opted for a more limited answer that military power is permissible in appropriate cases.”

Democrats, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, praised Mr. Medine and the Board that he will now lead.

“The confirmation of this nominee is a significant victory for all Americans who care about safeguarding our privacy rights and civil liberties,” Sen. Leahy said. “The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is a guardian of Americans’ privacy rights and civil liberties as well as an essential part of our national security strategy,” he said.

But this seems like an overstatement.  The size of the five-member Board and the resources available to it are not commensurate with the responsibilities it has nominally been assigned.  It cannot possibly perform comprehensive oversight of the broad range of privacy or civil liberties concerns that arise in the national security domain.  Expectations to the contrary are bound to be disappointed.  At best, the Board may serve as a boutique oversight shop that tackles a couple of discrete policy issues each year.

For background on the origins and development of the Board, see Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board: New Independent Agency Status, Congressional Research Service, August 27, 2012.