Much of President Obama’s defense of the NSA surveillance program yesterday came down to it being under the oversight of all three branches of the federal government, himself, the Congress, and the secret judges that signed off on the warrants.
In theory this is the case, but the practical matter is something very different according to Congressmen, and even the ones on the intelligence committees, who supposedly would have full access to everything the NSA is doing, often felt in the dark about the big picture.
Instead of straightforward briefings, the committee members usually were given incomplete information, and had to only rely on the world of committee staff who were themselves ex-spies, for any details.
“In terms of the oversight function, I feel inadequate most of the time,” noted Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D – IL), a House committee member. Rep. Rush Holt (D – NJ), a former committee member, said the sense was always that the NSA was trying to confuse members rather than inform them.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D – OR) is a perfect example of this, pressing desperately in hearings for details on the surveillance program for years. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper not only lied to Wyden in open hearings, but went on to brag about that fact after the NSA programs were unveiled, saying he gave the “least untruthful” lie he could think of rather than answering a question he didn’t want to.
The committees are always stocked with enough “yes” votes that virtually anything can get past them, and when people like Sen. Wyden or Rep. Holt pushed, the administration would just lie to them. They won the votes, sure, but the claim of real Congressional oversight doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.