Thanks to a series of high-profile leaks this year that uncovered the National Security Agency's dragnet collection of phone call records in the US, Congress is now locked in an internal struggle over the NSA's domestic surveillance powers. And while lawmakers seldom collectively diminish their own capabilities — let alone the prestige of Congress — several officials are now warning that the legislative branch may be unable to properly oversee the NSA.
Citing current and former lawmakers who have served on the intelligence and judiciary committees, an investigation from The Washington Post reveals deep problems within Congress, including cronyism, deception, and insulation, that have given the NSA a privileged position to maintain controversial surveillance efforts without much friction. Many of the complaints are familiar — the restrictions placed on members of Congress who participate in classified briefings aren't revelatory — but the extent of Congress' intimate relationship with the agencies they are tasked with overseeing has prompted concerns from legislators who feel incapable of enacting change.
"In terms of the oversight function, I feel inadequate most of the time."
"In terms of the oversight function, I feel inadequate most of the time," House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D, IL) told The Washington Post. "Sometimes you wonder if you're missing big things you shouldn't be missing," committee member Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D, CA) told the Post. "The members have to maintain their own notes and their own follow-up and keep the issues very much in their own minds."
The Post paints a picture of congressional oversight as secretive and sequestered as the intelligence agencies themselves, with members of Congress largely kept in the dark about the true nature of the programs they are expected to authorize. The Post says that lawmakers described classified briefings in which "intelligence officials would not volunteer details if questions were not asked with absolute precision": a charge that has landed top officials, like James Clapper, in hot water with some lawmakers who believe the NSA lied to Congress about the extent of its surveillance programs.
Even committee staff are former spy agency employees
Hearings in 2010 and 2011 on the telephone surveillance program were reportedly one-sided events in which lawmakers were briefed only by officials "steeped in the legal and national security arguments for aggressive spying." Even the members of classified committee staff, which lawmakers are often forced to rely on to assist with their oversight role, reportedly used to work for the spy agencies subject to the committee's oversight.
The Post reports that intelligence officials have "aggressively" courted committee members, "giving lawmakers a sense of being insiders in a clandestine world and at times treating them to a real-life version of the Spy Museum." In one instance, several members of Congress were invited to shoot "high-caliber weapons" at a CIA firing range in-between meetings with intelligence agency officials; as Rep. Rush D. Holt (D, NJ) tells the Post, such efforts were intended to "ingratiate" themselves with lawmakers.
While powerful congressional supporters of the NSA phone tracking program have promised to review it later this year, there's no indication yet that they plan to curb the agency's capabilities. President Obama, facing pressure from the public and from a divided Congress, announced some modest measures on Friday that he says will increase transparency and public awareness of the programs.
Despite efforts to ameliorate perception of the surveillance program with the public, the White House and NSA supporters in Congress may face an uphill battle. In July, a bipartisan effort to stop the NSA from collecting the phone records of Americans was narrowly defeated in a 205 to 217 vote in the House of Representatives.