Congress Pleads Ignorance

Lawmakers can't pretend they were oblivious to the NSA's actions.

By + More
WideModern_pelosi_130809.jpg
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, tells reporters that Congress has too much critical, unfinished work to be leaving for a five-week recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.

Having been, at one place or another in my career, on each side of the perennial debate in Washington about "who knew what and when," I knew it was a matter of time before we started hearing it about the leaked NSA operations.

Since leaving government, I have written before about the weird dynamics of "briefing" Congress on sensitive operations, e.g., Nancy Pelosi's claim that she didn't know about CIA's program of "enhanced interrogations" during the Bush Administration. Now, and perhaps ironically, we have a spate of Republicans saying they knew little or nothing of the NSA operations

So, what's the real story behind this typical Washington play to the media?

The media, of course, has a field day because on any day, they can get someone in Congress who wants to get their face on TV to say most anything – this whips up the hysteria that gives the story legs.To them, it's media Nirvana – it's the Trayvon Martin case of national security, and the best thing since the "torture" scandal.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Here is what's behind all this political smoke:

  • There are some traditional Republican vs. Democrat tensions at work, in that it's an opportunity for Republicans to criticize a Democratic President.
  • The NSA operations are very awkward for many Democrats to support (and many don't) because of their liberal views on personal liberties and conciliatory approaches to national security.
  • Likewise, Republicans - who traditionally are more aggressive in national security matters - are also reluctant to support a Democratic administration, even though they may agree with the NSA operations.
  • The "tea party" faction of the Republican Party opposes the NSA operations - and as such is aligned with the most liberal Democrats on the issue. Strange bedfellows indeed.
  • Members of the two intelligence committees, Republican and Democrat, seem generally to support the NSA operations – and they also seem to know the most about them. They should.
  • However, complaints that "we didn't know about this" are now being heard from both congressional Republicans and Democrats who are not on the intelligence committees.
  • Coming,  perhaps, are internal divisions within the intelligence committees, some Republican-Democrat spats and some between the committee leaderships and rank and file committee members. This is awkward for the intelligence committee leaderships.
  • The lawyers at the Department of Justice, are - uncomfortably perhaps - in bed with each other on the NSA ops, because the programs were started in the Bush administration and continued into the Obama administration. And the president himself has supported the programs in every opportunity he has had to talk about them. He clearly believes that privacy and security are in proper balance with the NSA operations - or at least not out of balance.
  • So, who (probably) knew what and when about the compromised NSA program?

    [VOTE: Was Obama Right to Cancel His Talks With Russian President Vladimir Putin?]

    Some relevant background: Ever since Watergate, the Church and Pike Committees, the creation of the intelligence committees and the enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (by the Democrats, FYI) in the 70's, there have been various legal requirements for the intelligence community to keep the Congress informed about what they are doing. And the Congressional Seniors, often called the "Gang of Eight" (majority and minority leaders of each house and majority and minority members of the intelligence committees), get briefed in more detail on the most sensitive intelligence activities and operations.

    Now, put yourself in the place of the directors of the various intelligence agencies. If you have any political sense at all (and you wouldn't be a director if you didn't), you are going to tell all about your agency's various activities and operations, including all the risks - at least to the gang of eight. This way no one can later accuse you of withholding information when one of these sensitive programs goes south or is compromised. And, because the most sensitive activities and operations are often the most risky, the odds of failure or compromise are correspondingly high.

    So, we can assume that - at the very least - the gang of eight was fully briefed on the NSA operations. And we can also assume that any other member of the intelligence committees who expressed interest in the programs would have likewise had a complete briefing, including on-site briefings by agency technicians, if such were requested.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

    How about an  ordinary member of Congress who was interested in these programs? They can also get briefings if they request them, and should approach their own party leaderships if they want additional information, or go to the leaderships of their house's intelligence committee. Are these briefings often complex, technical and time consuming? Yes, for sure.

    However, the suggestion that information is somehow being withheld from them is, frankly, silly, just as it was for Pelosi, a 10-plus year member of the gang of eight and a former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to say that she didn't know about the CIA's enhanced interrogation program.

    They know. They may wish they didn't when the story hits the news, but they know. In fact, it's to the administration's advantage – whether Republican or Democrat – that they know all the details. In short, they are all in this boat together, whether they like it or not.

    Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

    • Read Shelly Culbertson: Kurdistan in Northern Iraq Shows Signs of New Life After War
    • Read Robert Nolan: What to Make of Zimbabwe Re-Electing President Robert Mugabe
    • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad