If Sunlight’s the Best Disinfectant, What About When It Rains in Washington?

by Patrick Brennan

Plenty of people have commented on the fact that, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper held a classified meeting last Thursday to brief senators on the NSA’s surveillance programs, only 47 members of the world’s greatest deliberative body attended. Mike Allen of Politico noted Monday morning, however, one explanation: They were absent “because of an impending storm that threatened to tie up air travel — not because they were napping.” He was referring to the explanation offered by the New York Times’ Jeremy Peters on Morning Joe:

While Peters’s explanation was helpful, I’m not sure it really changes the equation: Senators, when given a rare opportunity to be educated about two issues of the greatest possible concern to their duty as officeholders and to their constituents — national security and the surveillance of Americans – thought it more important to get home on time than do their jobs right. Scarborough rightly diagnoses Peters with some Stockholm syndrome — in what other job, where else other than D.C., would the desire to avoid sitting on the tarmac on a Friday be considered an understandable excuse for leaving a crucial professional duty, one millions of your employers want you to perform better? Call it the soft despotism of low expectations.

Of course it’s possible the importance of these individual briefings is being overrated — though it would only be fair to expect any senators or representatives publicly discussing the programs in detail/ranting about them on cable TV, it seems, to learn as much as they can right now — but they actually seem more important than that. As President Obama said to Charlie Rose tonight, “all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization how this program works.” But a lot of congressmen have to take it on themselves to find out exactly how the NSA’s classified programs work, because they don’t have staff with the clearances necessary to find out about them or really understand them (intel-committee members tend to be exceptions to this). And as Bart Gellman, who’s exposed a number of these programs in the Washington Post, pointed out yesterday, the congressmen don’t go themselves to learn about the programs that can be used to monitor their constituents — and now they don’t go to the meetings where they can be briefed on them.

All of this is important because an important aspect of the powers we’ve given the NSA — especially a key part of the Obama administration’s justification, and ostensible distance from his predecessor – is that our elected representatives in Congress understood the programs when it authorized them, and now oversees them. Maybe some think intelligence-committee members alone provide the kind of monitoring Americans expect (I’d like to see a Democratic congressman say he’s comfortable entrusting that duty to Michele Bachmann et al.), but if most members of Congress won’t perform the oversight they’re allowed to do and that their constituents are now calling for, then Americans need to acknowledge that the powers we’re giving the NSA are being authorized, but not really overseen or understood, by our elected representatives.

And because of the security risks inherent in Congress, maybe the powers are useless as national-security tactics if there is proper oversight (Dick Cheney told Fox News that congressional leadership decided not to inform their members about some NSA programs because “it’ll leak”). That could still be worth it, a bargain we’re willing to make to keep our country secure (I’m inclined to think it might be). We just have to remember that many of our representatives in Washington are more interested in the bargains they get on their Thursday-afternoon flights.

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