Congress is trying to learn more about the NSA's surveillance programs, and it's not going well. In a letter delivered today to director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a group of 14 legislators (eight Democrats and six Republicans) asked for a ballpark figure on how many Americans are having their data collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Section 702 is the legal justification for many of the NSA's most invasive programs, including PRISM. But we still don't have an exact idea of how broad its reach is. So Congress asked! They passed FISA, after all, so it's only right that they should know how it's being used. They don't need an exact number of Americans caught up in PRISM, just a ballpark. Is it a thousand? A hundred thousand? 318 million? Take an educated guess.
It's not going well
They've wanted that guess for a while now. Even before Snowden, members of Congress were asking for details on how 702 was being used, but it's gone on for five years now and the NSA has not responded in any way. So today, they asked some more!
You would think there would be some more tangible action Congress could take, given its constitutional mandate to provide oversight of the executive branch, but you would be wrong. In theory, they might repeal FISA, but it's pretty clear that's not going to happen. We've been doing this dance for three congressional terms now and this is basically all that ever occurs.
It's especially weird since the NSA's charter is for foreign intelligence, so the answer to "how many Americans are you spying on?" should really be zero. But we all know that's not true, thanks to documents leaked by a whistleblower who is unable to enter the country on pain of immediate lifetime imprisonment.
It's also worth remembering that the last time Congress tried to hold an intelligence agency accountable for its actions, the CIA literally broke into the congressional offices of the people investigating it, a gross violation of democratic norms for which the agency has still faced no repercussions.
It's enough to make you wonder if the organs of government are fundamentally no longer able to hold these agencies accountable, leaving them to operate as miniature authoritarian claques embedded in a nominally democratic state, slowly leaching power and legitimacy from the elected officials they claim to serve.
Or maybe they just hate Congress and like keeping things secret? Hard to say! Maybe this will be the letter that finally cracks their resolve.