Recent media reports, including a May 11 article in USA Today, suggest the NSA surveillance effort was far more widespread than originally believed. In response to the continuing political furor surrounding the program, the White House has widened the list of those authorized to be briefed to include all members of the intelligence panels in both chambers.
If the FBI sends its investigators to Capitol Hill this spring, it will mark the second time in less than four years that the bureau has questioned lawmakers regarding alleged leaks about sensitive NSA information.
The first probe came in the summer of 2002 and was centered primarily on Senators and their staffs, after the leaking of the joint intelligence committees briefing on NSA intercepts of terrorist chatter on Sept. 10, 2001. Shortly after the briefing, CNN reported about the NSA intercepts and the agency’s failure to translate them until after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Because the report came from a CNN producer who covered the Senate, that leak investigation focused intensely on the Senators at the briefing — and ultimately a criminal probe centered around Shelby. The Justice Department never brought a case against Shelby, who claimed all along he never “knowingly” leaked classified information, and the Senate Ethics Committee cleared Shelby of any wrongdoing late last year in a one-page letter that did not indicate whether Shelby was CNN’s source for the leak.
Despite the federal probe into his activities several years ago, Shelby said Tuesday he would be willing to speak with “any investigators if they would call me” about the latest NSA leak probe.
In the 2002 probe, the House and Senate legal counsels worked closely together in coordinating how the Justice Department would handle its interviews with lawmakers and Congressional aides, largely because the circumstances of the joint committee during the pivotal hearing required them to do so.
This time around it’s unclear whether the counsels will need to work as closely together, if at all, according to several Congressional sources, given that the number of lawmakers involved is more limited.
However, this investigation would involve the potential questioning of at least two, and possibly three, former lawmakers: Graham, who received briefings in 2001 and 2002 as Senate Intelligence chairman, and Daschle, who was briefed in 2004 when top leaders were given sit-downs about the controversial program. In addition, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was briefed in 2004 about the NSA surveillance in his capacity as House Majority Leader, and any interview with him after June 9 would be dealing with him as a retired Member.
Those retired lawmakers are allowed to use Senate and House counsels to assist with their interviews, since the questioning would be regarding their actions as officials during their Congressional service.
Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) were briefed on the NSA’s surveillance program in December 2001, before House and Senate leaders, due to their positions as the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee, which funds a large chunk of the intelligence services’ budgets.
Inouye said he was unaware that the Justice Department is interested in speaking with lawmakers who were briefed about the program, but said that he couldn’t have been the source for The New York Times report.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.