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The Nation

Privacy Guardian Is Still a Paper Tiger

A year after its creation, the White House civil liberties board has yet to do a single day of work.

February 20, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

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 attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 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.

Foot-dragging, debate over its budget and powers, and concern over the qualifications of some of its members -- one was treasurer of Bush's first campaign for Texas governor -- has kept the board from doing a single day of work.

On Thursday, after months of delay, the Senate Judiciary Committee took a first step toward standing 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 and doing much serious work.

Critics say the inaction shows the administration is just going through the motions when it comes to civil liberties.

"They have stalled in giving the board adequate funding. They have stalled in making appointments," said Rep. Carolyn B. 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 liberties panel.

"We felt it was absolutely vital," said Thomas H. 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 inaction 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 order has caused bipartisan dismay in Congress.

"Obviously, civil liberties issues are critically important, and they have been to this president, especially after 9/11," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, 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. 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 E. 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 of George W. Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas, in 1994, and co-chair 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, where Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales once was a partner, has specialized in defending oil and gas companies in environmental lawsuits.

Foremost among her credentials, she told Senate Judiciary Committee members in a response to their questions, was the two years she spent as deputy attorney general in President Reagan's Justice Department. There, she said, she had to weigh civil liberties concerns while overseeing domestic surveillance and counter-intelligence 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 and is the only panel member with apparent expertise in civil liberties issues.

The panel's lone Democrat, Lanny J. 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 B. Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died in the Sept. 11 attacks. The fifth member is Francis X. Taylor, a retired Air Force general and former State Department counter-terrorism coordinator, who is chief security officer at General Electric Co.

The board members declined to comment for this article. Three referred calls to Dinkins, who referred calls to the White House.

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 and growing anti-terrorism measures.

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