James Clapper, director of national intelligence, took a hard line on Oct. 29 in testimony before the Intelligence Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He argued that alarm over electronic monitoring of foreign leaders and vast numbers of citizens is misplaced.
According to him, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies are cooperating, and this is business as usual. There is no real cause for public concern – and no requirement to inform Congress.
Not surprisingly, members of that body don’t agree. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., was surprised and disturbed by assertions legislators need not be informed.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, now calls for a "total review" of all U.S. intelligence programs. She states explicitly that her committee "was not satisfactorily informed." The efforts, reportedly underway for more than a decade, included monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
The senator highlighted reports President Barack Obama was not told about the spying before the current controversy. Regarding remarkably comprehensive collection of information on leaders of U.S. allies, including those in France, Mexico and Spain as well as Germany, she was blunt: "Unequivocally: I am totally opposed."
Feinstein is a powerful and highly effective leader.
In fairness to Clapper, his viewpoint is understandable, though stated undiplomatically. Congress is notorious for leaking information, even from classified briefings. From the perspective of traditional national security, the less the executive shares with the legislature, the better.
However, U.S. officials ultimately are answerable to the people, and their representatives. Balancing secrecy and accountability is inherently uncertain. The current controversy is vexing, but also ultimately constitutionally healthy.
The current spying controversy bears directly on the Patriot Act, passed overwhelmingly in Congress shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsored this law. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the only member of the upper house to oppose the bill.
However, Sensenbrenner today is extremely concerned about unlimited surveillance, and is taking direct action to limit spying. As chairman of the House Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, he is pressing to restrict National Security Agency phone and email tracking.
Since last summer, when the NSA phone surveillance story broke, the White House and Congress have been reviewing Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes collection of telephone records. The super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes surveillance, will be required to consider opposing viewpoints.
Additionally, the NSA has been ordered to be more transparent. An outside review panel is being established to monitor intelligence activities.
U.S. government surveillance of large numbers of citizens is not unprecedented. Long before 9/11, Cold War concerns led to comparable practices. Some of them indisputably were illegal.
In 1967, amid civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, U.S. Army Gen. William P. Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for intelligence, sent an unprecedented request to the NSA to collect intelligence on the rapidly escalating domestic unrest. This sparked extensive domestic surveillance involving the Army and CIA as well as the NSA.
The following decade, in the wake of both Vietnam and Watergate, public exposure by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, curtailed the program. Various reforms followed, including FISC.
The earlier spying emphasized both electronic and human surveillance. By contrast, the NSA today apparently minimizes human dimensions in favor of essentially unimaginative electronic tools.
This is cause for great concern, going beyond the inevitable conflict between accountability and security.