The NSA Oversight Farce

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This weekend we learned that President Barack Obama’s NSA surveillance panel, built at least in theory to vet our intelligence activities and weigh their performance against the right of privacy, went on hiatus after the government shutdown froze its funds. It was an emblematic moment. As a nation we couldn’t even keep the farce of oversight in play long enough to have it ultimately disappoint us.

A pattern has become clear, regarding the surveillance activities of both the United States and the United Kingdom, most especially when it comes to their keeping tabs on their own citizenry: Clarity with the opacity of wet mud.

Senator Corker of Tennessee complained directly to the president last month that while he had received some information that proved useful, classified briefings that the NSA held for Congress “have generally been limited to simply discussing the facts underlying specific public disclosures and have not provided a fulsome accounting of the totality of surveillance activities conducted by the federal government, and in particular, by the NSA.”

Corker went on to state that he regularly learns more “new revelations” about the activities of the United States’ surveillance apparatus in newspapers than in provided briefings. This, he notes dryly, means that Congress is left to decipher why “prior briefings provided by the Executive Branch did not cover the material contained in these articles.” In other words, why the hell aren’t you keeping us in the loop?

Senator Corker is the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. In a short blurb before his letter, the Senator linked to the damning report in the Washington Post that the NSA violated its privacy rules thousands of times each year. The implication is that he hadn’t been told.

Former Member of Parliament (MP) Chris Huhne recently wrote in The Guardian that the public would not be surprised at how much MPs know, but instead by how little. (Huhne departed from Parliament following a bit of skullduggery, which is worth reading up on but irrelevant in this context.) A short excerpt from his column (Note: The GCHQ is like the British NSA):

When it comes to the secret world of GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA), the depth of my “privileged information” has been dwarfed by the information provided by Edward Snowden to the Guardian. The cabinet was told nothing about GCHQ’s Tempora or the NSA’s Prism, or about their extraordinary capability to vacuum up and store personal emails, voice contact, social networking activity and even internet searches.

He goes on to note that even during his time on the National Security Council he did not learn of either program.

Final oversight of the government rests in the hands of its people, regardless of who currently stands elected. However, as we’ve seen several times in recent months, the government isn’t too keen on the public learning much. Aside from directly lying, the United States and the United Kingdom have taken such courageous steps as detaining the spouse of a journalist and threatening and intimidating him in the process, as well as blocking folks from filming outside the datacenter in Utah that it is building to greatly expand its storage capability in order to store more collected digital information.

So the U.S. Congress isn’t kept informed of the NSA’s activities, and Parliament is hardly kept abreast of the GCHQ’s surveillance work. That, and the public is blocked and generally harassed when they try to uncover information that could help them be functionally informed, and therefore have a say in their own government.

Oversight? Out of sight.

Top Image Credit: Medill DC