Lawmakers’ wildly conflicting accounts of how much they knew about newly leaked surveillance programs has cast a new glare on the difficulties of congressional oversight of intelligence and the stratified rules about which members and staffers can be briefed on what.
Lawmakers on the Intelligence committees and their experienced staffers have almost unlimited access to the most sensitive programs, although there are limits even then to how much scrutiny they can apply to spy operations.
Other lawmakers can proactively seek out information about these programs but can’t talk to their own staffers about what they learn. Some never bother.
Those differences have played out in the game of political hot-potato that began last week with the disclosure of a sweeping surveillance court order that allowed the executive branch to collect phone record metadata on millions of U.S. citizens, as well as with the disclosure of a program called PRISM that collected Internet data.
President Barack Obama and administration officials assert that Congress was briefed on all of it and signed off on it. Some lawmakers agreed, but many said they were in the dark.
Asked by NBC News on June 8 whether lawmakers knew what they were voting on, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. answered, “I trust so.”
Asked whether Congress as a whole is well informed on intelligence issues, Jennifer Hoelzer, a former staffer for Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., answered, “Not at all.”
On Sunday, Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., suggested that the dynamic needed to change.
“One of the structures of highly classified ... is no staff,” Feinstein said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “I think that should be changed so that Intelligence Committee staff can come in with the member and go over and review the material.”
Feinstein apparently misspoke. A former congressional intelligence staffer said “the intel staffers all have access to this.” A Senate committee aide said: “All intel staff have access to all the details on these programs and ... we are always available to help members not on the committee.”
Feinstein said last week that 27 senators availed themselves of a June 6 briefing on the phone records program.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said on MSNBC last week that he learned about the phone records program ahead of the leak only because he sought “special permission” to review the relevant documents.
But not all staffers have access to all of the information. Neither House nor Senate members can consult their personal staff about the information they get.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.