Watching the NSA Watchers
Congress may not be capable of keeping a check on our Byzantine bureaucracy.


John Fund

On Sunday, former vice president Dick Cheney addressed the dilemma many conservatives face in assessing the revelations about the National Security Agency’s data collection. On the one hand, they are suspicious of the federal government. On the other, they often mute such concerns when it comes to anything touching on national security.

Cheney captured the tension perfectly in defending the NSA’s activities. Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace first asked him: “What right do you think the American people have to know what the government is doing?” After a pause, Cheney said: “Well, they get to choose, they get to vote for senior officials, like the president of the United States or like the senior officials in Congress. And you have to have some trust in them.” Leaving aside the fact that less than 3 percent of Americans have ever voted for the current top four leaders of the Senate and House, Cheney’s comment certainly represents a crabbed view of public accountability by officials.

And possibly a dangerous one. Later in the interview, Wallace asked Cheney for his opinion of President Obama. “I don’t think he has credibility,” he said. “I think one of the biggest problems we have is, we have got an important point where the president of the United States ought to be able to stand up and say, ‘This is a righteous program, it is a good program, it is saving American lives, and I support it.’ And the problem is the guy has failed to be forthright and honest and credible on things like Benghazi and the IRS. So he’s got no credibility.” If we are to rely on the people elected to high office not to abuse their authority, what do we do when they do exactly that — as Cheney thinks Obama has?

And can we believe the administration and the NSA when they say the program was structured to conduct only the same kind of data mining that local law enforcement employs with phone companies when they’re investigating routine crimes? Declan McCullagh of CNET reported this weekend that Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, had disclosed that in a briefing last week he’d been told the NSA does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls. Nadler said the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.” Nadler has since issued a clarification that muddies the waters, but he doesn’t deny his initial statement. 

This is what former House Judiciary chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, a key author of the 2001 Patriot Act, has been worrying about for a long time. He told Laura Ingraham on her radio show last Wednesday that the explanations the White House and the senior members of Congress’s Intelligence Committees are offering for the NSA surveillance activities are “a bunch of bunk.” In his view, the administration and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court have gone far beyond what the Patriot Act intended. Section 215, the so-called business-records part of the amended act, “was originally drafted to prevent data mining” of the type the NSA has been engaged in for years. The FISA court’s willingness to accede to administration requests is “really truly scary,” he said. They were “signing off on an unlimited dragnet.”

Sensenbrenner believes that changes to the Patriot Act must be “very specific” so that “the intelligence community knows that this goes too far.” Good luck. Back in 2010, he told FBI officials at a congressional hearing that he felt “betrayed” by the FBI’s attempts to evade the Patriot Act’s restrictions.

“Every time we tried to patch up a hole in what the FBI was doing, you figured out how to put another hole in the dike, and this little Dutch boy has only got ten fingers to put in the dike,” he told the officials.


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