Suppose Congress created a board to protect the privacy of Americans and no one showed up. That's the bizarre reality of the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, all of whose five seats have been vacant since 2008. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) is pressing the Obama administration to fill the vacancies. In doing so, the president should choose individuals of sufficient experience and stature to act as watchdogs over the intelligence community and the Justice Department.
The board was originally established by Congress in 2004 and was raised to the status of an independent agency within the executive branch in 2007. Its mandate is to advise the administration when anti-terrorism policies threaten to trample civil liberties, and it has access to both public and classified information. It's meant to complement, not replace, congressional oversight and investigations by the inspectors general of the Justice Department and the CIA. It also makes an annual report to Congress — or would, if it were reconstituted with new appointments.
Although it was the George W. Bush administration that inaugurated the illegal wiretapping of Americans suspected of being in contact with foreign terrorists, invasions of privacy are a constant danger in any intelligence program empowered to collect and scrutinize the personal and electronic records of U.S. citizens. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is designed to help protect against abuses in advance so that we don't have to conduct inquests after the fact.