As more details trickle out this week about the federal government’s secret collection of American telephone records, frustration is growing on Capitol Hill over a stratified intelligence-briefing structure that gives some members — but far from all — access to highly classified information.
No fewer than four layers of intelligence clearance exists in Congress, with some House and Senate members of varying degrees of leadership and committee status privy to more information than rank-and-file lawmakers.
The broad issue of who gets access to sensitive national security information has bubbled into a debate — and somewhat of a sore spot among lawmakers — since news was leaked to the media last week that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Americans under an order granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Often when national intelligence agencies brief Congress on sensitive issues, party leaders and senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — and to a lesser degree the full panels and other committees in which national security measures are pertinent — serve as a proxy for the rest of Congress.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said he believes the House intelligence and judiciary committees were briefed about the NSA phone program before its existence was made public last week.
“Now, we have a process for informing. And the information I have is that there were members of the Judiciary Committee and the intelligence committee who were, in fact, briefed so that the Congress was kept informed,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “Whether all 535 members were personally briefed, I doubt that. That is not the process.”
The Democrat said he learned of the NSA program from media reports — though he added that a 2011 security briefing he attended on the USA Patriot Act may have included some references to the program but that he couldn’t recall for certain.
While some lawmakers left out of the classified briefings are pushing for more congressional oversight, many inside the information circle say it shouldn’t be expanded.
“You can’t do intelligence [briefings] in general” settings, said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “It has nothing to do with logistics. It has to do with national security.”
With 100 senators and 435 representatives in Congress, national security analysts say, it would be near impossible, imprudent — and possibly dangerous — to brief all lawmakers equally.
“Look, all congressmen are not created equal,” said Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank. “I’ll tell you, there are people in Congress who, if I were running an intelligence agency, I would not brief. I just wouldn’t do it.”
Security analysts on and off Capitol Hill say the information flow generally works well, but also creates situations in which many lawmakers can be caught off guard when top-secret intelligence information known to a select few on Capitol Hill is leaked to the public.
“I’m not sure there’s very much to do about that,” Mr. Wittes said in regard to the unbalanced flow of information on Capitol Hill. “I’m not honestly sure how you fix that problem or whether you can. It may be one of these intractable difficulties with the separation-of-powers system.”
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, told CNBC on Monday that most members of Congress weren’t aware of the breadth of the NSA program. “I do think that it probably suggests that we need to have additional oversight,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, reiterated complaints Tuesday that National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper failed to give him a straight answer when he was asked about snooping on Americans during an oversight hearing in March.
The senator, who linked a video of the exchange last week on Twitter, asked Mr. Clapper whether the government collects data on millions of Americans. The director said it does not, at least not wittingly.
But Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former analyst with the contracting firm Booz Allen Hamilton — who also worked for the CIA and NSA — set off a firestorm last week by telling The Guardian newspaper that the NSA keeps data records on phone calls from Verizon customers and collects Internet data from foreigners through a previously secret program known as Prism.
This week, Mr. Clapper told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he answered Mr. Wyden’s question “in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no.”
Mr. Wyden said oversight of the nation’s intelligence agencies “cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions,” Mr. Wyden said in a prepared statement.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who isn’t a member of his chamber’s intelligence committee, said any member of Congress who pleads ignorance of the program “has got nobody to blame but themselves.”
“It was there to be learned about, it was there to be understood. So when somebody who’s been in Congress for any length of time is upset and astonished and appalled, somebody needs to ask them, in your business, why didn’t you know about this program?” Mr. Graham told a group of reporters at the Capitol.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve been shut out of the process when it comes to what we’re doing to protect ourselves.”
Mr. Graham added that he would be fine with certain security briefings being expanded beyond the two intelligence committees.
Since the NSA snooping program broke, both chambers have held chamberwide briefings on the situation, including a closed-door House meeting Tuesday.
Meanwhile, lawmakers cited Mr. Snowden — who leaked information about the NSA’s telecommunications surveillance program — as a consequence of a bloated, expensive contracting workforce.
“The story that’s told is that he was a high school dropout, that he didn’t finish his military obligation, though he attempted, and dropped out of community college. And it’s also reported that he’s being paid in the range of $200,000 a year as a contract employee,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.
Booz Allen said Tuesday that it fired Mr. Snowden, who is believed to be hiding in Hong Kong. Mr. Snowden earned about $122,000 a year, the consulting firm said.
“I continue to be concerned about the cost of the contractor workforce, not just in the NSA but in the Department of Defense,” said Mr. Durbin, chairman of the panel’s defense subcommittee.
• Tom Howell Jr. and Kristina Wong contributed to this report.
• Sean Lengell can be reached at email@example.com.
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