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Disappearance of Privacy Board From White House Web Site Raises Questions

WhiteHouse.gov page before and after  deletion of the reference to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean called the administration’s lack of progress  on the board 'extremely disappointing.' (Versionista/Getty Images)

The White House has erased all mention of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from its Web site. The removal, which was done wth no public notice, has underlined questions about the Obama administration's commitment to the board, which was created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to oversee the federal government's actions on civil liberties and privacy.

ProPublica’s ChangeTracker, which monitors changes to WhiteHouse.gov, detected the deletion on the page that lists the entities encompassed within the Executive Office of the President. (Here's the page in question, before and after the change.)

The board has always existed in a kind of bureaucratic purgatory. In December 2004, Congress passed a law on intelligence reform that created the board. However, President Bush waited six months before nominating anyone to sit on the board, and it wasn't until March 2006 that the board first met. A year later, one of the board's members, Lanny Davis, a former Clinton official, resigned, saying other members saw the board as "wholly part of the White House staff and political structure, rather than an independent oversight entity."

In 2007, Congress attempted to give the board more independence by making all its members subject to Senate approval, rather than just the chairman and vice chairman, and giving each member fixed terms, rather than having them serve at the pleasure of the president. President Bush waited until February 2008 to send Congress his nominations for the reconstituted board. Congress returned the favor by sitting on the nominations, perhaps in the hopes of waiting for a new administration. When Congress adjourned at the end of 2008, the board was unfilled and in limbo. (A Congressional Research Service report (PDF) has more on the board's tumultuous history.)

This spring, the Obama administration released a document called the Cyberspace Policy Review (PDF), which said in order to balance civil liberties with security, "It is important to reconstitute the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board [and] accelerate the selection process for its board members." (Politifact is tracking the pledge.)

The report was released in May. Seven weeks later, President Obama has yet to announce any candidates to be nominated to the board. In fact, the only evidence of action on the board that we could find was its deletion from WhiteHouse.gov.

The White House refused to comment about the decision to remove the board from its Web site. However, an administration spokesperson -- who insisted on not being named -- said in an e-mail to us:

This board was never filled by the prior administration. Protecting civil liberties and privacy is a major priority for President Obama, one he takes as seriously as possible. The Obama Administration is reviewing how to best ensure that there is a functioning entity in place to do this important work.

Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, told ProPublica that the administration's failure so far to move forward on the board was "extremely disappointing."

"We've been looking forward eagerly to the time when some good strong members would be appointed by the [Obama] administration," said Kean. "I would think that having a permanent board to protect civil liberties would be something the Obama administration would embrace. I can't believe we can't find good men and women to support this cause."

When asked at what point the administration's claims that it needs more time to reconstitute the board would become unreasonable, Kean responded, "We're approaching it now."

Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which pledged (PDF) in June to hold the Obama administration accountable for its pledge to reconstitute the board, said his organization wants to know when the administration will move forward.

"We have concerns about the speed they're moving," said Schwartz. "It's been in law for years now, and we've never had a functioning board. They said it was important in May. It's time this thing exists."

Correction: A caption on this page previously suggested 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean said the Whitehouse.gov's deletion of the reference to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was "extremely disappointing." In fact, Kean was referring to administration’s overall lack of progress staffing the board.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

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