by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The fact is that we need to double-check all those “checks and balances” the NSA assures us will prevent abuse of its surveillance powers. Similarly, the media should inject some balance into how they treat President Obama’s assurances that nothing is wrong at the NSA.
Consider the record. Last week, President Obama told reporters: “I’m comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, they would say, ‘You know what? These folks are following the law and doing what they say they’re doing.’”
But the NSA audit found that in at least one instance, the agency decided it didn’t need to follow the law and report the unintended surveillance of U.S. citizens. In another case, the FISA court was in the dark about a new NSA collection method for months. When it did learn about it, it promptly declared it unconstitutional.
President Obama has also insisted that our intelligence gathering is transparent. In June, he claimed in a statement that the FISA court is “empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren’t being abused.” But writing to the Washington Post, the chief of the FISA court, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, emphasized that his court “does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that regard the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders.” In other words, the view over the government’s shoulder is often blocked.
A veteran intelligence official with decades of experience at various agencies identified to me what he sees as the real problem with the current NSA: “It’s increasingly become a culture of arrogance. They tell Congress what they want to tell them. Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein at the Intelligence Committees don’t know what they don’t know about the programs.” He himself was asked to skew the data an intelligence agency submitted to Congress, in an effort to get a bigger piece of the intelligence budget. He refused and was promptly replaced in his job, presumably by someone who would do as told.