Earlier this summer, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have cut off funding for the NSA’s surveillance program on American telecommunications. His amendment picked up a surprising level of bipartisan support, enough to worry the White House into actively lobbying against it a month ago. The amendment failed by a mere twelve votes — but that was before an internal audit by the NSA showed thousands of violations every year by the agency in its surveillance, with little or no consequences. The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, insisted that she’d never even heard of the audit.
CNN’s Candy Crowley asked Amash yesterday on State of the Union whether he will float the amendment again after this revelation. Amash replied that it will have to come in another form, as the appropriation bill targeted by his first attempt has already passed, but that he expects to try again very soon:
Amash isn’t the only one looking for a do-over:
The revelation that the National Security Agency broke court-imposed privacy rules thousands of times a year in snooping Americans’ phone and email records would have changed the outcome of last month’s House vote to defund the program, according to one legislator who was part of the effort.“We only needed seven votes to switch and I think there were at least seven, probably more like 20-30, who had their concerns about the program but were prepared to give the intelligence agencies the benefit of the doubt,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, told The Washington Times after the NSA rules violations came to light. …
“We were being told there were ‘some’ errors, like a few,” Mr. Griffith said, referring to sworn congressional testimony about the domestic programs from senior intelligence, FBI and Justice Department officials. “They gave everyone the impression these [errors] were very rare. If [my colleagues] had realized how many [violations of privacy protection or legal rules] there were, I think more than seven of them would have switched.”
Well, then, isn’t it fortunate for the CIA that the audit hadn’t come to light by that point in time? It’s that kind of coincidence that John Fund says is driving the impulse for greater oversight — and also the serial prevarications from the Obama administration about the nature of the program:
A veteran intelligence official with decades of experience at various agencies identified to me what he sees as the real problem with the current NSA: “It’s increasingly become a culture of arrogance. They tell Congress what they want to tell them. Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein at the Intelligence Committees don’t know what they don’t know about the programs.” He himself was asked to skew the data an intelligence agency submitted to Congress, in an effort to get a bigger piece of the intelligence budget. He refused and was promptly replaced in his job, presumably by someone who would do as told.
The response to all of this by some NSA supporters is to point out that the nation hasn’t been attacked in the dozen years since 9/11. As someone who stood on the street across from the World Trade Center as it collapsed on 9/11, I can appreciate how we must strive to prevent similar atrocities in the future.
But steadfastness must be accompanied by a clear understanding of the role of bureaucracies. General Keith Alexander, the current head of the NSA, toldCongress in June that data “gathered from these programs provided government with critical leads to prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.” But my veteran intelligence-agency source says that no one can be sure if that’s the case: “The NSA grades its own report card, and it wouldn’t be the first bureaucracy to exaggerate its effectiveness.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a moderate Democrat who has been on the Intelligence Committee since 2001, said in a speech last month: “I have not seen any indication that the bulk phone-records program yielded any unique intelligence that was not also available to the government through less intrusive means.” Presumably, NSA would have shared such positive evidence with the intelligence committees.
It was Senator Wyden who famously asked Director of Intelligence James Clapper last March, before the Snowden revelations, whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper’s response was pretty clear: “No, Sir.” When pressed, Clapper amended his answer to “not wittingly.” He later told NBC News that he had given the “least untruthful” answer he could think of. He should have done what previous officials have long done and said he could fully respond only in a closed session. At least one of our top intelligence officials doesn’t display intelligence as often as he should.
Other top officials have made such a hash of explaining each new NSA revelation that even staunch national-security conservatives are beginning to wonder what else we don’t know. “The proper response to the latest revelation is not panic but deep frustration and a demand for data that does more than get the NSA through a news cycle,” writes Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s conservative blogger. “It must be more forthcoming, or it will lose its mandate.”
The only way to end the arrogance is for Congress to reassert its oversight responsibilities over a program that has clearly gone off the rails in that regard. If it takes stripping the NSA of funds to bring it to heel, then Amash is on the right track — and, I suspect, more of his colleagues will agree with that the second time around.