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US Privacy Board 'unique'

Interview: Gero Schließ / ecs
November 5, 2013

How can US surveillance be both more effective and more accountable? DW spoke to David Medine, chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, which is charged with protecting US civil liberties.

Image: David Medine

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board sees itself as a guardian of civil liberties in the US. Founded in 2004 by US Congress in order to advise the president and the administration and to ensure the protection of civil rights and liberties, the agency has understandably gained importance in light of the recent US spying scandal. On Monday (05.11.2013), the heads of the German security services, the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), met with their US counterparts at the White House to negotiate on a potential 'no-spy' agreement. Just a few streets away, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board held a public hearing on Monday. The hearing included representatives of the National Security Agency (NSA) and of other US security agencies, as well as legal and security service experts. The results of the hearing are to be presented to President Obama soon in a report.

DW: Was Monday's public hearing linked to the review of US surveillance programs that President Obama has announced?

David Medine: Our board was created by Congress as a permanent, independent, bipartisan group. I joined the board back in late May, four days before the Snowden leak. Shortly after, the President of the United States and members of the House of Senate asked us to conduct a study of this program. Over the summer, we've gathered information, had classified briefings and reviewed decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And our board decided that a public hearing would be useful at this time.

What are your findings so far after this hearing?

We learned a lot about some potential reforms that the government is amenable to. You heard that the government said that it might retain data for a shorter period of time than the current five-year retention period, might consider fewer "hops" (analysis of the contacts of a target's contacts is two "hops;" analysis of their contacts is three - the ed.) in a telephone metadata program and is considering expanding protections to non-US citizens - so those are important considerations. The board will now deliberate after we finish today's hearing and reach its own conclusions about recommendations it might make.

How would you explain the work you are doing at the moment to foreign audiences?

I think we are unique in the world, as being an independent, bipartisan government agency that has full access to all the American intelligence programs. We are free to express our views as to whether those programs balance national security with privacy and civil liberties. I'm not aware of a country in the world that has assigned a federal government agency that authority. And it's evidenced by today's hearing where we had a public discussion, where we were able to question the intelligence community in an open setting about how these programs operate.

Concerning the privacy of foreign citizens, what are your main concerns?

We're assessing whether there's a legal basis for the United States to provide protection to foreign citizens. And even beyond that whether that's an appropriate privacy and civil liberties concern. And we have not reached any conclusions about that, but we've gotten some very valuable input on it in today's session.

The fact that the NSA has spied on non-Americans in particular was not at the center of the hearing. Can you understand the uproar in Europe on the surveillance issue in the US and what would be your message for the European audience?

There's been concern domestically and internationally about these programs and that's why we're conducting the study. We're taking a very hard look at whether privacy and civil liberties are being protected. Again: we're an independent voice. We are not required to clear our report with the White House. We will issue it directly to the president and to Congress.

David Medine is a lawyer and a data expert, who has served in a variety of functions within the US government in the past. Since May, he is the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

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