Senators Demand Answers On NSA Snooping — By The End Of 2014

This week nine members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the inspector general of the Intelligence Community, I. Charles McCullough III, asking him to conduct a full review of U.S. intelligence operations, and to “make public the findings.”

This almost sounds compelling: A bipartisan group of Senators demanding that the intelligence wing of the United States government take a hard look at itself and report its findings to the public. Of course, asking a consummate intelligence insider to vet his own team isn’t exactly exciting.

Mr. McCullough III is a former FBI agent, helped draft the intelligence portions of the Patriot Act, and worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. So the guy has friends throughout the agencies that he has now been asked to both vet and then publicly discuss. What do you want to wager that this report comes out milquetoast?

Here’s what the senators want the inspector general to focus on:

  • The use and implementation of Section 215 and Section 702 authorities, including the manner in which information – and in particular, information about U.S. persons – is collected, retained, analyzed and disseminated.
  • Applicable minimization procedures and other relevant procedures and guidelines, including whether they are consistent across agencies and the extent to which they protect the privacy rights of U.S. persons.
  • Any improper or illegal use of the authorities or information collected pursuant to them.
  • An examination of the effectiveness of the authorities as investigative and intelligence tools.

That’s actually quite a fine list. While asking the inspector general to grade the law he helped to write and vet the performance of his friends in an unbiased fashion is humorous, the senators’ final request is my favorite:

Please proceed to administratively perform reviews of the implementation of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of FISA, and submit the reports no later than December 31, 2014.

So the report can come out more than a year from now, and meet expectations. Assuming that the good inspector complies with the request, he has 15 months to produce something that says nothing. Empty attempts at oversight are worse than doing nothing, as they provide cover for parties that otherwise would be easier to excoriate.

Ars Technica has a good take on the situation at hand: “As more and more has come out about the scope of American surveillance programs, lawmakers are realizing that they don’t know very much about what exactly is going on.” Yes, and the rest of us don’t know enough either.

But asking Mr. McCullough III to educate us next year about what is going on now doesn’t even pass the laugh test. I’m not sure if the good senators understand how anemic their attempt at controlling the intelligence apparatus in fact is, and that alone is depressing.

Top Image Credit: Chuck Hagel