Tag Archives: National Security Agency

The Church Committee – Dusting Off One Option for Overhaul of Oversight

“It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.”Henry Kissinger

Former Senators Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Gary Hart (D-CO) hope they can buck that trend. During this past week the two former Senators have taken a lead in speaking out on an issue that has reached front burner status for many organizations and individuals. The issue is a call for reestablishment of a new “Church Committee,” a hallmark in the history of open government initiatives, now honored forty years after its work.

Chaired by late Senators Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Vice-Chair John Tower (R-TX) the select investigative committee was charged with conducting a “thorough, bipartisan examination” of our government’s secret intelligence operations undertaken over the course of several presidential administrations.” During nine months of hearings the committee, formally titled the “United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities” (the “Church Committee nickname is obvious….) interviewed over 800 officials, held 250 executive and 21 public hearings. Their goal was to probe widespread intelligence abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. Bottom line, the Church Committee concluded that every administration, beginning with FDR and continuing through Nixon, had abused its secret powers. (http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/churchcommittee.html)

The most visible result of the Church Committee was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), source of the secret FISA court of recent headline fame. The other visible result is creation of the powerful intelligence committees in the House and Senate.   Both entities have warranted widespread criticism from a host of critics. Further, in the wake of 9-11, Congress passed new laws that greatly expanded the reach of intelligence agencies and limited Congressional – thus public – oversight of the federal agencies. In sum, many believe that this has led to overreach and abuse of surveillance programs.

Bill Moyers’ 2007 retrospective on the work of the Committee offers a good review of the findings and implications of the work of the Church Committee. (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10262007/profile2.html)

In light of perceived overreach, as well as massive changes in technology and diminished oversight, there is increasing call for establishment of a 21st Century Church Committee.”  The issues has been boiling over for nearly a year since Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on the committee…. The composition of the 114th Congress presents new challenges to the concerned public.

Given their experience and history Senator Walter Mondale and his colleague, Senator Gary Hart, are speaking out. The former Senators have written the foreword to a report issued by seventeen former staff members of the Church Committee who have gathered their thoughts to produce a report calling for a comprehensive re-evaluation of this nation’s systems of intelligence oversight. (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/strengthening-intelligence-oversight) Briefly, the Senators conclude that “much of the error and abuse we found resulted from excessive secrecy that forfeited the strengths of our constitutional system: the value added by the input of informed overseers in Congress and the courts, and the pubic support earned through democratic accountability.”

The Senators add that “today, intelligence activities are back in the news, too often for the wrong reasons. Many Americans are questioning whether the structural reforms developed as a result of the Church Committee investigation remain sufficient to ensure intelligence activities are properly tailored to meet their objectives without infringing on individual rights or betraying American values.”

The recommendations for Congressional action identified by the veteran staffers are these:

  • Assessing whether Congress has the appropriate resources to maintain effective oversight of intelligence activities.
  • Examining whether committees are able to get the information necessary to properly guide intelligence activities and inform the rest of Congress and the public
  • Modifying the FISA process to make it more transparent and accountable.
  • Reassessing the government’s aggressive foreign intelligence surveillance practices, which jeopardize the United States’ role as a leader in promoting human rights and democracy in the international community.
  • Adopting measures to reduce over-classification, which squanders intelligence resources, impedes information sharing denies the public access to information it can use to better understand threats, and promotes leaks by eroding respect for the classification system. [Summarized by Brennan Center for Justice, 1-27-15]

Granted, the inner workings and the intelligence community are overload for most Americans.  Still, Senator Mondale stays in touch with the things that probably should matter to his Minnesota neighbors. His call to attention is no doubt worth a listen.





Rosemary Award – A Reminder that Constant Vigilance Matters

The wait is over – the votes are in!  And the winner of the Rosemary Award is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper,  named today as recipient of the uncoveted award for worst open government performance in 2013.   Clapper topped a high profile list of “secrecy fetishists and enablers” for his resounding “No, Sir” response to Senator Ron Wyden’s question: ”Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”   — a comment Clapper later referred to as the “least untruthful” answer possible to congressional questions about the secret bulk collection of Americans’ phone call data.

The Rosemary Award, conferred by the National Security Archive, (not to be confused with the National Security Agency) is named after President Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods who testified she had erased 18½ minutes of a crucial, possibly incriminating, Watergate tape by somehow manipulating an inadvertent bodily move that involved answering a phone while holding her foot on the pedal of her tape transcribing device. *

The Rosemary Award also recognizes other individuals identified by the National Security Archive as “Clapper’s fellow secrecy fetishists and enablers including General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, former FBI director Robert Mueller, the National Security Division lawyers at the Justice Department, and President Obama

Though the approach is light-hearted, the intent of the Rosemary Award is to “highlight the lowlights of government secrecy” and, by implication, to emphasize the responsibility of Americans to hold their elected and appointed government officials accountable.

For a full description of the rationale for the decision re. this year’s Rosemary Award, along with background on the National Security Archive click here. (www.narchives.org)

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  • Visual images of Rose Mary Woods’ demonstration of how she manipulated these antique instruments once common in government and corporate offices are available online at www.narchives.


Government information – leaks, privacy, more questions than answers

Like most Americans I’m totally befuddled by the Snowden affair.  A confirmed supporter of open government my allegiance to the people’s right to know is in the DNA.  At the same time, I hear the concerns of data privacy advocates.  And in the end, it seems to me that this bifurcation of the issue is a false premise at its core.

The best I can do is to identify, ponder and focus on some basic questions.

  •  Why did Booz-Allen have access to sensitive records of the NSA in the first place?  In our enthusiasm for limited government are we abdicating government authority and responsibility in favor of the lowest bidder or, more likely, the favored consultant agency.
  • What trusted government process allowed for Booz-Allen to place a callow youth with no relevant experience to guard the data hen house?
  • What other clearance do contracted lackeys enjoy?
  • What has been the role of the journalists ostensibly selected by Snowden – Glenn  Greenwald of the Manchester Guardian and Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman.
  • Who/what is the FISA court?  How are members chosen? What exactly is the role of the court?  To whom is FISA accountable?
  • Just how much infringement by the government on individuals is acceptable?
  • Whose responsibility is it to assure that government policies and practices stay ahead of the technology?
  • Is responsibility for policy being relinquished to geeks?
  • How do average Americans know the rules under which our government is operating – intentionally or inadvertently?
  • Is anyone outside the Beltway really informed, engaged, responsible?
  • How can citizens know the scope of this incident? Or, for that matter, how many citizens know the basics of government intelligence – the players, the policies, the decision-making process, the protections?
  • Where is the Fourth Estate in all this?

I’m not as interested in the details of where Snowden’s plane landed or the role of Assange as I am in the Big Picture.  I want to know the Deciders, the game, the players, the rules, the oversight, the accountability of the actors to the American people who not only deserve  the truth but who also pay the generous salaries of these high-placed Insiders.

For all of the inflated language, posturing and finger-pointing, this incident reveals that the business of governing this nation is a human enterprise.  So is the business of investigating, interpreting and informing the public.   Given access to information by and about our government we citizens are capable of understanding and acting responsibly.  We can and will be responsible for the oversight so obviously lacking in the intelligence community and the free press.

Others will and must have other questions – the urgency is to keep on asking till we get some answers.