More problems have surfaced related to the overseers that are supposed to be providing the oversight the NSA keeps pointing to while swiftly sweeping terabytes of data under its brand-new Utah rug. A few representatives have expressed their frustration about keeping the public in the dark, but have seen little opportunity to rectify the situation due to the relevant documents being classified.
Ali Watkins, writing for McClatchy, points out that these reps' hands haven't actually been tied this whole time.
Outspoken members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have said frequently that they wanted to warn the public about the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of telephone records but the program’s highly classified nature prevented them from making public reference to the programs.
That, however, is not the full story. Buried in the pages of Senate Resolution 400, which established the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1976, is a provision that allows them to try. Across those nearly 40 years, it’s never been used.
The committee’s failure to make use of the provision even once, critics say, underscores a problem with congressional oversight: Congress has proved unwilling to openly question the intelligence agencies’ claims that something must remain secret.
Four decades without a single challenge being raised. That's rather odd (or obsequious, if you prefer), considering the provision was added with the intent of providing an adversarial avenue to prevent intelligence agencies from controlling the dialog. This addition was added as the Church Committee was replaced by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Senators foresaw the likelihood of a conflict between the intelligence agencies and the legislative branch. The legislation that established the committee called for it to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States.”
As a part of this oversight, Section 8 of the resolution lays out a process by which a member of the Intelligence Committee may seek the declassification of information that he or she thinks is of public interest, even if the executive branch labels the material top secret.
“The select committee may, subject to the provisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such disclosure,” the section reads.
If these senators saw the possibility of conflict 40 years ago and deemed it necessary to add in some balance, why has every representative since that point refused to challenge intelligence agencies?
One reason is the Intelligence Committee itself, which has tended to take the side of the agencies or the administration. Back in 2003, Sen. Bob Graham challenged the classification of a portion of a report pertaining to the 9/11 attacks. Despite the fact that such challenges are supposed to be put to a vote within the committee, Graham received a letter back stating his request had been denied without a vote.
This problem continues to this day as the Senate Intelligence Committee headed by Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss has been more interested in coming to the NSA's defense
and pushing through extensions of Bush-era policies with little to no debate
. When the news first broke about the NSA's court order to Verizon demanding records on millions of customers, Feinstein and Chambliss said they'd known about the program since 2007. The problem is, many other senators didn't
know, or didn't know the extent of the collections.
With representatives like Feinstein and Chambliss running interference for intelligence agencies, it's unlikely any such challenges would have survived a committee vote -- if they received one at all. But a larger problem is the fact that Senators themselves seem to be unaware such a provision exists, including one of the most vocal opponents of the NSA's programs, Ron Wyden.
Asked about the authority, Wyden confessed that he didn’t know the provision existed. His Intelligence Committee colleague Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., also said he wasn’t aware of it.
Once again, we have an entity that the NSA points to as the all-important "oversight" being cut out of the loop by those heading up a committee that should, at least part-time, engage in an adversarial role. The Intelligence Committee's leaders have gone completely in the opposite direction, acting as a PR flack for the agency and holding as many cards as possible close to their chests.
If Feinstein and Chambliss were aware of this provision, they certainly never attempted to use it, much less inform anyone critical of the government's surveillance programs. Those heading up the House Intelligence Committee have withheld information from both long-term Congressmen
and newly-elected representatives
. It's not much of a stretch to believe the Senate Committee has done the same.
That the NSA uses the term "oversight" to grant its overreach an air of legitimacy is no small matter. It's very hard to believe the agency heads are ignorant of the protective wall these committee heads (both in the House and the Senate) have erected around them. But it's even more disturbing to find out this sort of behavior has gone on for nearly four decades -- that representatives aware of the provision allowing them to challenge overclassification have instead chosen to place the interests of these agencies ahead of the interests of the public.
The idea of a secret agency being "subject" to oversight has always been a bit of a joke. As more ugly truth has risen to the surface, the joke has morphed into a profane buzzword the agency tosses around as post facto whitewash to give all of its transgressions a thin sheen of respectability.
The real problem is that the committee and the agency's desires seem to be permanently intertwined. If 40 years have gone by unchallenged through regime changes and periodic bursts of "throwing the bastards out," it's unlikely the next 40 years will bring any remarkable changes.