Political Moves: How Dianne Feinstein Cut Off One Of The Few Attempts At Actual Oversight By Senate Intelligence Committee

from the no-time! dept

We’ve already covered how Dianne Feinstein used the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to play games with the English language, while Senator Dan Coats used it to rant against all you stupid Americans for not trusting the NSA, but there have been some actual attempts to have the Senate Intelligence Committee perform its actual duty of oversight. Both Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall — who have been trying to raise these questions for years — actually had specific questions for the assembled panel, but the panel (mainly Keith Alexander) did its best to completely avoid answering the questions, then used political gamesmanship to block Wyden from asking followups.

Wyden used his question to highlight what he’s been hinting at for years, that it’s almost certain that the NSA has collected bulk data on the locations of Americans (something not yet officially revealed, and which they’ve sort of tried to deny for a while). Wyden has been asking versions of this question for a few years (and trying to pass legislation blocking this kind of thing for nearly as long). But watch how Keith Alexander never actually answers the question:

Wyden: Now with respect to questions, let me start with you Director Alexander, and, as you all know, I will notify you in advance so that there won’t be any surprise about the types of issues we are going to get into. And Director Alexander, Senators Udall, Heinrich and I and about two dozen other senators have asked in the past whether the NSA has ever collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information in bulk. What would be your response to that?

Gen. Keith Alexander (Alexander): Senator, on July 25, Director Clapper provided a non-classified written response to this question amongst others, as well as a classified supplement with additional detail. Allow me to reaffirm what was stated in that unclassified response. Under section 215, NSA is not receiving cell-site location data and has no current plans to do so. As you know, I indicated to this committee on October 20, 2011, that I would notify Congress of NSA’s intent to obtain cell-site location data prior to any such plans being put in place. As you may also be aware….

Note the word games: “under Section 215.” He does not say whether they’ve used some other authority to do so. And then he’s just repeating talking points so Wyden flat out cuts him off:

Wyden: General, if I might. I think we’re all familiar with it. That’s not the question I’m asking. Respectfully, I’m asking, has the NSA ever collected or ever made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information. That was the question and we, respectfully General, have still not gotten an answer to it. Could you give me an answer to that?

Alexander: We did. We sent that — as you’re also aware I expressly reaffirmed this commitment to the committee on June 25, 2013. Finally, in the most recent and now declassified opinion renewing this program, the FISA court made clear in footnote number five that notice to the court in a briefing would be required if the government were to seek production of cell-site location information as part of the bulk production of call detail records. Additional details were also provided in the classified supplement to Director Clapper’s July 25th response to this question. So what I don’t want to do, Senator, is put out in an unclassified forum anything that’s classified there so I’m reading to you exactly. So we sent both of these to you. I saw what Director Clapper sent and I agree with it.

Wyden: General, if you’re responding to my question by not answering it because you think that’s a classified matter that is certainly your right. We will continue to explore that because I believe this is something the American people have a right to know whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell-site information. I understand your answer. I’ll have additional questions on the next round. Thank you, Madam Chair.

First off, Alexander’s answer shows that, contrary to the assertions of some staunch NSA defenders, it is entirely possible to answer a question by saying “there is more information in classified documents that shouldn’t be shared in an open setting.” Some have tried to excuse James Clapper’s lies to Congress by suggesting he couldn’t have said more or less what Alexander said here.

Second, note the doublespeak that Alexander is engaged in here. Even asked, again, to answer the basic question, Alexander pulls an “under this program” type of answer, suggesting (again) that American location data either has been, or is planned, to be collected in bulk. That is worrisome, and should not be classified information. Rather it should be open to public debate as to whether or not it’s appropriate.

But here’s where the political gamesmanship came in. Committee chair Dianne Feinstein gave Senators only five minutes each for their questions. It seemed like a majority of this “oversight” committee didn’t actually ask any questions, but rather, like Coats, simply filibustered angrily at the American public or press for not trusting the NSA. But when actual questions were asked, not enough time was given to get a straight answer. At the very end of the hearing, after most of the other Senators had left, Senator Wyden made a perfectly normal request: could he ask his followup questions. He noted that he just had two questions and both could be asked within an additional five-minute window. Senator Susan Collins, who had similarly filibustered during her own five minutes (focusing mainly on knocking down a complete strawman: falsely insisting that people were upset that the NSA was using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to record all phone calls, when everyone knows that it’s just about call records, not call contents), objected to Wyden’s request because she thought everything would go in order. It was pure political gamesmanship.

So instead of getting to conduct more actual oversight by having the committee ask important questions of the surveillance bosses, the panel, instead, moved on to the “second part” of the hearing, which involved two staunch non-governmental NSA defenders who basically sat down to talk about the awesomeness of being able to spy on everyone. Ben Wittes opened with a “joke” about how the NSA’s director of compliance John DeLong, mocked the level of scrutiny the NSA was under by pointing out that if he had typos in a document he’d have to reveal that to some oversight authority. Har har. This was useless. There was no reason to have them testify, and they were given a hell of a lot more time than the Senators actually asking questions.

That time could have been used to actually conduct oversight. Instead, we got nothing. Throughout the panel Senators pointed out that the American public doesn’t trust the NSA right now (though, they often blamed the public and the press for this, rather than the direct actions and statements of the NSA). If they wanted a lesson in how not to build up that trust, holding a completely toothless “oversight” hearing was a pretty good start.

After Wyden, Udall also asked some specific questions, in which the deputy Attorney General basically just repeated the FISA Court ruling saying that “relevant” has been redefined by the intelligence community to mean basically anything that the intelligence community feels is “necessary” to its investigations, and seems to think that it’s a good thing that this is a “low bar.” He completely ignores the basics of the 4th Amendment, as well as recent Supreme Court decisions on the topic.

I’ve included the video of both Wyden and Udall’s questions below, so you can see the less than 20 minutes of the two-hour session where actual serious questions were asked.

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Comments on “Political Moves: How Dianne Feinstein Cut Off One Of The Few Attempts At Actual Oversight By Senate Intelligence Committee”

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TaCktiX (profile) says:

Can't Keep This Up Forever

A major difference between the dodged questions today and Clapper’s lying answer before the Snowden leaks is how the media is reporting it. Before, Senators Wyden and Udall would’ve gotten a quick by-line on a political blog, but no real attention from mainstream media.

Now, the AP among other prominent media outlets are picking up the story immediately and couching it in the same “are you serious?” language that Techdirt and other places have had before.

It’s only a matter of time before they either need to double down in the name of surveillance at all costs, or are forced to cease entirely. I pray for the latter, personally.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Can't Keep This Up Forever

The Program is in place as long as the MSM keeps protecting their “Liberal Warriors”.

-President is not called out for lying about NSA program on Jay Leno.

-Clapper given a pass for lying to Congress.

-Conceal Carry Feinstien attack on the 2nd and 4th Amendment in the name of Protecting US.

-MSM Ignoring Wyden because he is not a lock-step liberal.

Anonymous Coward says:

When will we learn?

How many times in history have we seen or recorded the corruption of a Government by the amount of “its classified” or “you don’t need to know” or “we are the government and its nun yo bizniz” mutterings?

A secretive government begets a corrupt government “ONLY”. If you are not able to understand how that works then there is not hope for you.

We must be 100% aware of how the government collects and what it does with out information. And we damn sure NEED TO KNOW how it is interpreting/enforcing the law so we can either pat them on the back for a job well done or replace them for incompetence!

out_of_the_blue says:

More useless diversion about politicians.

Just call for indictments, trial, and JAIL! — ELSE you yet again help with their main purpose of taking focus off what crimes NSA and its executives have/are committing and how they need to be held accountable.

Besides, Greenwald already covered this far better:

Indeed, if I had to pick the single most revealing aspect of this entire NSA scandal – and there are many revealing ones about many different realms – it would be that James Clapper lied to the faces of the Senate Intelligence Committee about core NSA matters, and not only was he not prosecuted for that felony, but he did not even lose his job, and continues to be treated with great reverence by the very Committee which he deliberately deceived. That one fact tells you all you need to know about how official Washington functions.

You wrote: “Rather it should be open to public debate as to whether or not it’s appropriate.” — OKAY, ALREADY! TELL US WHAT YOU SAY IN THAT DEBATE! WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE HAPPEN, NOT JUST SAY SHOULD BE A DEBATE! That’s EXACTLY the USELESS NOISE that I’m complaining about! — And now, recursively, “PaulT” will complain that I’m complaining about the lack of substance here!

You’re losing the tech focus, becoming just another NPR-type commenter on political theater without any substance.

Anonymous Coward says:

the FISA court made clear in footnote number five that notice to the court in a briefing would be required if the government were to seek production of cell-site location information as part of the bulk production of call detail records.

He used production, not collection, which could imply that they are collecting the data, but not using it as evidence. In any case bulk production of records is rarely if ever part of a court case.

Anonymous Coward says:


The law is only for those that DON’T work for the Govt.

Name one Regulator / Govt Official that was even charged during the 2008 financial meltdown?

S&L Crisis – In 1995, the RTC had closed 747 failed institutions, worth a book value of $402 billion (much smaller than 2008).
– 800 Bankers were charged and went to jail
– 1,013 Govt Employees were charged and most when to jail

Name one Govt Official that has been charged for:
– DOJ calling reporter J Rosen a “Co-Conspirator”
– Pushing the “video” as the reason for Benghazi?
– Breaking the IRS’s laws to question Non-profits?
– Leaking the Bin Laden raid info

There is a bigoted movement by the MSM and those that control the WH to crush those that have an opposition to the Govt in general.

Anonymous Coward says:

As always it’s more smoke and mirrors without substantial facts. Again it is quite evident that they have learned only one thing out of all this. With all the attention on what they are doing, lying gets them busted. So instead this one is about not answering questions while appearing to be open to questioning.

No where in all that rambling did Alexander actually answer the questions. It’s another dog and pony show designed to calm fears without actually doing anything that would calm them.

It’s high time to throw the heads of this branch out of office. Nothing will change while they are in charge of directing the NSA operations to continue to do as they are doing. Removal is the only option that will create the change the American people are seeking.

It’s also time to bring back the Amish amendment for a real passage at removing funding. But let it not end there as the Pentagon will just then ask for more money to fund the NSA through the black budget. Close that door as well. Once no one in the NSA is getting paid and no one has money to fund these programs I think there will come a point when truthful answers can either be given or can be found.

This dancing around the issues has come to reveal corruption at it’s finest and enough is enough.

Rekrul says:

Under section 215, NSA is not receiving cell-site location data and has no current plans to do so. As you know, I indicated to this committee on October 20, 2011, that I would notify Congress of NSA’s intent to obtain cell-site location data prior to any such plans being put in place. As you may also be aware….

Hey Snowden, I think I know what your next leak should be…

Anonymous Coward says:

she is a very dangerous person, in my opinion. she appears to do whatever she can possibly think of to keep the NSA operating, to keep the surveillance on everyone as a matter of course and not actually think too much about the consequences of her actions that continuously clamp down on the public. she needs to think about how she got to the position she holds, who put her there and who can just as easily take it away!

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