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Oversight board briefed on NSA surveillance

/ Source: The Associated Press

Several members of a government board appointed to guard privacy and civil liberties during the war on terror say they're impressed with the protections built into the Bush administration's electronic eavesdropping program.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board received a long-awaited briefing on the secret program last week by senior members of the National Security Agency.

Two of the five board members told The Associated Press on Monday they were impressed by the safeguards the government has built into the NSA's monitoring of phone calls and computer transmissions and wished the administration could tell the public more about them to ease distrust.

"If the American public, especially civil libertarians like myself, could be more informed about how careful the government is to protect our privacy while still protecting us from attacks, we'd be more reassured," said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer.

Alan Raul, a former Reagan White House lawyer and the board's vice chairman, said the group "found there was a great appreciation inside government, both at the political and career levels, for protections on privacy and civil liberties."

"In fact, I think the public may have an underappreciation for the degree of seriousness the government is giving these protections." said Raul, author of a book on privacy and civil liberties in the digital age.

Program's protections kept secret
The briefing had been delayed for over a year because President Bush was concerned - after several press leaks - about widening the circle of people who knew the exact details of the eavesdropping program.

A breakthrough was reached in recent days and the five board members were briefed during Thanksgiving week.

The board members are prohibited from discussing any specific protections or tactics because the NSA program remains classified.

But Davis said he believes the administration could tell the public more about the program's protections without compromising national security.

The board was created as a compromise between Congress and the White House amid growing public and congressional concerns about the government's tactics in the war on terror and their impact on civil rights.

Those concerns were fueled in part by news leaks that divulged the existence of the NSA's eavesdropping program, a similar terrorist finance tracking system and secret CIA prisons where high-value targets have been interrogated.

Democrats, who are about to take over Congress in January, have been concerned the board doesn't have enough independence because the political compromise struck in late 2004 left the board under the authority of the president.

Some have discussed elevating the board to an independent body like the Sept. 11 review commission.

After meeting in private 16 times over the last year to discuss classified matters and to be briefed by every major U.S. intelligence agency, the board has scheduled its first public hearing Dec. 5 to solicit testimony from nongovernment privacy experts.

The forum, to be held at Georgetown University, will hear from some of the administration's privacy critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as well as conservative and academic voices.