Congress is currently debating changes to the legally authorized, court-supervised and administration-managed bulk records collection programs. The most widely known of these being Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is used by the National Security Agency to collect (pursuant to court orders) and then search (under specific court mandated controls and procedures) bulk telephone call records from U.S. telecommunications providers.
During the last year's public debate about these programs, congressional critics of NSA's activities have drawn one breath to praise the professionalism of the men and women of NSA. They then draw another breath to opine loudly that NSA (apparently forgetting that they are again referring to those same professionals) would actively seek loopholes in the law or abuse its authorities and technical capabilities to step beyond the bounds of the agency's authorized foreign intelligence mission.
It's understandable that the average United States citizen is skeptical of government in general and concerned that the intelligence organs of the United States (such as NSA) might be used against them. I can tell you from my long personal experience working directly with the men and women of NSA that the career workforce and senior leadership would find such actions as appalling as any U.S. citizen would. They swear an oath of service to the Constitution, not a presidential administration, and they abide by our Constitutional principles, lawful executive orders, and the law.
The reams of documents recently declassified by the Obama administration clearly demonstrate constant and pervasive administration and judicial oversight of the agency, including NSA's self-reporting of unintended departures from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court's orders, and NSA's subsequent submission to corrective FISA Court instructions.
Furthermore, the Obama administration's issuance earlier this year of Presidential Policy Directive 28, which codifies long-standing basic principles for signals intelligence collection, and Congress's debate over changes to FISA reflect their respect for the American people's concerns, while preserving intelligence capabilities needed to keep the American people safe — albeit with a measure of increased risk.
One major component of the effort to reassure the American public is still missing, however.
Congress has not yet committed itself to increased transparency of its oversight of intelligence activities. Congressional intelligence oversight committees in the House and Senate hold regular (often weekly) closed-door hearings in which the elements of the intelligence community brief them on various on-going and planned operations and programs.
Yet the only public accounting for what goes on in those briefings is a notice on the committee's websites that the session will be held at a certain date and time, with the bland notation of, "a closed session to examine certain intelligence matters" or "on-going intelligence activities." This kind of utterly meaningless description, born in the Cold War, must yield to the realities of 21st Century America.
It's understandable that classified specifics from these briefings are not divulged. Disclosing the exact topics would incur the legitimate risk of exposing intelligence operations to our adversaries and potentially imperil the lives of the members of the intelligence community, the military and our citizens.
However, there are still reasonable ways Congress can improve the transparency of its oversight activities to the American public and respect the need for intelligence and military operations to remain secret.
First, an unclassified title should be listed for each briefing the committees receive during a closed door hearing. For example, "CIA Briefing on WMD Proliferation" or "NSA Briefing on SIGINT Operations Against Terrorists." The generic titles I suggest above would provide a level of additional transparency without compromising sources and methods or actual intelligence data to our adversaries.
Second, the committees should publish the names of exactly which committee members were present at each briefing. And in the case of a briefing to the entire membership of the House or Senate, the list of all the members present, so the public will know that its representatives are showing up and whom to hold accountable should questions arise in the future.
These two simple measures would provide the American people increased transparency of congressional oversight activities while properly protecting classified information and most importantly, providing a means for the American public to assess whether individual members of Congress, and the committees as a whole, are carrying out the oversight role we expect and require of them.
Tom Wither is the author of the military/intelligence thrillers: "The Inheritor" (Turner Publishing, June 2014) and "Autumn Fire" (Turner Publishing, September 2014). He is also a 25 year veteran of the intelligence community. The views and opinions expressed are his own and are not those of any organization or element of the intelligence community or Department of Defense. His email is Tom@TomWither.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.