NSA’s New Critics Face Questions On Their Own Role In Surveillance Scandal

Several Congresspeople complained about not knowing about NSA surveillance, despite briefings that were offered.
By @FrederickReese |
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    U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is pictured in 2006, in San Diego. (AP/File/Lenny Ignelzi)

    U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is pictured in 2006, in San Diego. (AP/File/Lenny Ignelzi)

    The recent controversy over the wide-scale surveillance of the nation’s communication by the National Security Agency has created a great deal of flip-flopping and “changes of heart” on the issue, both among the public and members of Congress.

    Take, for insistence, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). The self-identified author of the Patriot Act wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on June 6, “As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the Act. The Federal Bureau of Investigations [sic] (FBI) applied for a top secret court order to collect the phone records of virtually every call that has been made by millions of Verizon customers. These reports are deeply concerning are raise questions about whether our constitutional rights are secure.”

    “The Patriot Act was a careful balancing of national security interests and constitutional rights,” the letter continued. “While I believe we found an appropriate balance, I have always worried about potential abuses of the Act… How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the Act?”

    MSNBC obtained two letters from the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2010 and 2011 that indicated that briefings on the Obama administration’s application of the Patriot Act were made available to all legislators from both houses. A senior member of the Obama administration sent MSNBC a list showing a minimum of six classified briefings or meetings on the Patriot Act between 2009 and 2011, and a former Justice department official who attended the briefings stated that specifics were presented on the exact issues Sensenbrenner claimed were withheld.

    In defense of Sensenbrenner’s absence from the briefings, spokesperson Ben Miller stated that the congressman “does not want to be limited by the restraints of confidentiality. Therefore, he believes in an open dialogue by which legislative solutions can be constructed and passed into law before the public.” Miller acknowledged that Sensenbrenner had attended briefings in the past.

     

    Congress’s “outrage”

    Sensenbrenner is not the only congressman who has complained about not knowing about NSA surveillance, despite the briefings that were offered. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) appeared on MSNBC last week to decry the NSA situation.

    “This second thing which we just have learned about called PRISM, I had no idea about, I don’t know how many people knew about it in Congress, but I suspect a very small number on the intelligence committees. And so when the president says all — I think he said all members of Congress, or full disclosure to all your members or something — well, I think very small number of senators and congressmen have full the details on these programs,” Merkley said.

    However, Merkley was invited to a November 27, 2012, briefing on Section 702 — the legal provision used to justify the PRISM system — featuring Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then-Assistant Attorney General for National Security Lisa Monaco, DNI General Counsel Bob Litt and NSA General Counsel Rajesh De. Merkley excused himself from the meeting for an interview with MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

    As with many of the “scandals” that have hit the White House recently, this issue is more a matter of spin and lack of understanding than actual malfeasance. With revelations that only 47 of 100 senators actually attended the surveillance program briefings, the NSA “scandal” is more an indictment of Congress than the NSA.

    “For senators to complain that ‘I didn’t know this was happening,’ we’ve had many, many meetings that have been both classified and unclassified that members have been invited to,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters at his weekly Capitol Hill briefing. “If they don’t come and take advantage of this, I can’t say enough to say they shouldn’t come and say ‘I wasn’t aware of this,’ because they’ve had every opportunity to be aware of these programs.”

     

    Matters of perspective

    These recent attacks on Obama’s use of the Patriot Act also represents the ideological crisis that is currently playing out with the parties. Many Republicans are finding themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending the president.

    “The rhetoric you see is so misguided and it creates such the wrong perception,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Even on the phone records, where I think most people are upset, we take the business records via court order, and it’s just phone numbers — no names, no addresses, put it in a lock box… It’s like a phonebook without any names and any addresses in it.”

    Former Vice President Dick Cheney defended the use of the surveillance program on “Fox News Sunday.”

    “When you consider somebody smuggling a nuclear device into the United States, it becomes very important to gather intelligence on your enemies and stop that attack before it ever gets launched,” he said.

    Cheney later took the opportunity to take digs at the president, criticizing the president’s delaying of aid to Syria, his calls to wind down the war on terror, and his handling of the various White House scandals.

    Cheney is not the only one who is conflicted about this issue. According to a June 6-9 Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of all Americans now find NSA surveillance acceptable, compared to 51 percent in January 2006. More interestingly, Democrats now overwhelmingly support NSA surveillance, with 64 percent finding it acceptable, compared with only 37 percent in 2006. Republicans still find NSA surveillance acceptable at 56 percent, but their opinion is less clear than it was in 2006, when the approval rate was 75 percent.

    However, the details can be found in the meaning behind the wording. According to a June 10-11 Gallup poll, 53 percent of all respondents stated that they disagree with federal efforts to “compile telephone call logs and Internet communications.” Democrats supported the use of surveillance, 49 percent to 40 percent, while the Republicans were opposed, 63 percent to 32 percent.

    The Pew poll informed respondents that the NSA has been “getting secret court orders to track telephone call records … in an effort to investigate terrorism” and asked respondents if the government action was “acceptable” or “unacceptable,” while the Gallup poll made no reference to court orders and asked whether the respondents “approve” or disapprove” of the action.

     

    The Lucius Fox lesson

    While a literal interpretation of these numbers suggest shifting opinions, there is another way to think about this. In the movie “The Dark Knight,” Batman developed a way to turn every cell phone in Gotham City into a covert sonar-enabled surveillance device. He did this to help track down the Joker, who — by this point — became an undeniable threat to everyone in the city. Lucius Fox immediately rejected the scheme on moral grounds, but ultimately went along with it — with serious reservations — because he trusted Batman.

    It can be argued, similarly, that the NSA issue is not so much a question of surveillance, but who is doing the surveillance.

    “When people are asked what they think about the government having this power, they’re implicitly being asked what they think about President Obama having this power,” wrote Seth Masket for Washington Monthly. “Is it really hackish for people to be more comfortable with a governmental power if they know someone they more or less trust is going to be in charge of it? Is it hypocritical to think that police state tactics are necessary when someone who shares your values is deploying them but excessive when someone hostile to your values is deploying them? Democrats are basically saying, ‘Yes, this is potentially problematic, but we trust Obama to do it right,’ and Republicans said the same thing about Bush.”

    “Anti-Obama sentiment is not at a fever pitch, but at a continual hum,” said Leslie Ungar, author of “100 Tips to Communicate Your Value,” to Mint Press News. “It will just always be there, the lens through which many will filter all information. The inconsistency is that if spying is bad now, it was bad during Bush. Republicans that fail to see that are like the scorpion in the tale of the turtle and the scorpion. Biting Obama has become a reaction more important than their ideals.”

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