The U.S. government is working to restrain intelligence agencies, and Americans should applaud. On March 25, major proposals were announced. The Obama administration seeks to end government bulk collection of phone records by the super-secret National Security Agency and require court approval to monitor individual phone numbers.
At the same time, a bill to restrain the NSA has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., respectively chairman and ranking minority party member on the House Intelligence Committee, are cosponsoring the legislation. Their notable cooperation in rigidly partisan Washington reflects broad sentiment in Congress.
Relations between the government intelligence community and Congress have been deteriorating in the wake of revelations concerning widespread information gathering overseas as well as at home. Hacking the phones of foreign leaders, in particular German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has complicated alliance relations and embarrassed the Obama administration.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took a hard line on late October testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. He argued that alarm over electronic monitoring of foreign leaders and vast numbers of citizens is misplaced. Clapper’s complacency as well as apparent disdain for questioners fueled reform efforts.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for a "total review" of all U.S. intelligence programs. She stated explicitly her committee "was not satisfactorily informed." Recent reports of CIA spying on Congress greatly stoke the reform fires.
U.S. officials ultimately are answerable to the elected representatives of the people. Balancing secrecy and accountability is inherently uncertain. The current controversy is vexing, but also 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.
However, Sensenbrenner today is extremely concerned about unlimited surveillance, and with others is taking direct action to limit spying. As chairman of the House Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, he is pressing to restrict NSA 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 secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes surveillance, will be required to consider opposing viewpoints.
Additionally, the NSA has been ordered to make more information public, including a Web site to serve as a mechanism to promote transparency. 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, which crossed the line of legality.
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 — and illegal — 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.