Stopping Another Snowden

What should Congress do in reaction to the NSA’s leaks?

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After a month back in their home states and districts telling folks that they didn't know much (or anything) about what the NSA was doing (but we know better), Congress now has to decide what do about all the politically uncomfortable revelations of NSA operations by cyberthief/spy Snowden and the complicitous media.

Typical of such things in Washington, there will be lots of political grandstanding, speeches, Sunday talk show appearances and many bills introduced to show Congressional "concern." However, it is the low-profile intelligence committees in both houses of Congress that will be primarily responsible and especially busy, and we should expect the best thinking on the whole issue set to come from them. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

So, how could they proceed, what issues should they look at and what could they produce as a result of the Snowden cyberthefts and media disclosures? Here are some suggestions:

  • Have as many open hearings as possible – obviously, there will also have to be closed hearings, but much of the committees' work should be on the record and public.
  • Consider having a series of joint House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings to demonstrate bipartisanship and solidarity on fundamental national security issues.
  • Consult primarily with real experts on intelligence policy, oversight and national security – people with extensive policy and leadership experience at senior and operational levels.
  • Consider new or enhanced statutory and regulatory roles for the attorney general in the oversight of U.S. intelligence activities and operations – this, in coordination with the judiciary committees.
  • Review and revise the statutory requirements, standards and actual practices for the classification and declassification of all categories of national security information, including the exotic categories.
  • Review all executive department intelligence oversight procedures, regulations, organizational responsibilities and directives for all intelligence agencies, operations and activities.
  • Review all rules for granting of all types of intelligence clearances and accesses to all categories of classified information.
  • Review all agreements and "memorandums of understanding" between the intelligence agencies themselves, and, with the judiciary committees, agreements with the various law enforcement agencies.
  • With the judiciary committees as appropriate, review all arrangements, contractual or otherwise, between all intelligence agencies and telecommunications providers, Internet service providers and the like.
  • Review the nature and extent of contractor support for all intelligence operations and activities.
  • Consider whether legislation is needed to control or prevent the publication of properly classified information, such as exist in the U.K. and Canada.
  • Re-examine the current validity and relevance of the concept of "U.S. Persons" in U.S. public law and executive department regulations.
  • Create a new, independent intelligence agency responsible for all U.S. counter-intelligence activities, operations and policies, including insider threats.
  • With the armed services committees, consider legislation separating the NSA from the Department of Defense and making it a direct reporting agency to the Director of National Intelligence.
  • Consider modifications and additions to the laws governing covert actions.
  • Examine the charters and basic roles and missions of all U.S. intelligence agencies.
  • Review all worldwide HUMINT operations and authorities; and, together with the armed services committees, review all DOD HUMINT authorities and operations.
  • With the armed services committees, review the adequacy of command, control, management and oversight of drone operations.
  • Review all Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act operations and oversight mechanisms, including all aspects of the "terrorist surveillance programs" and any other surveillance activities carried out since 9/11 under the various Patriot Acts.
  • Together with the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, review the adequacy, relevancy and currency of all laws, regulations and directives governing government access to and use of publically available information, including social media, and other information containing personally identifiable information or PII.
  • [See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

    In sum, the more significant revelations related to Snowden's treachery have to do with the lack of internal oversight - this mainly because many oversight mechanisms and procedures have not been updated for many years.  And, oversight is why the intelligence committees were created and what they do best. Accordingly, we should trust them to do what's necessary to restore public confidence in the various US intelligence activities and operations needed for our national security.  

    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.

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