The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held an open hearing on NSA surveillance programs that was a response to all the coverage of disclosures former NSA contractor Edward Snowden made to The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald.
It was titled, “How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries.” It was one of the more Orwellian-sounding names for a hearing in recent history.
To say this was part of the committee fulfilling its duty to provide oversight would be ridiculous. The hearing by the committee chaired by Rep. Mike Rogers was convened to reaffirm that Congress will do whatever the NSA wants and exists solely to help legitimize whatever the NSA may desire to do in the name of so-called national security whether the programs or operations are necessary to thwart terrorist attacks against the United States or not.
Moreover, with NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) General Counsel Robert Litt gathered before the committee to answer questions, it was an opportunity for representatives like Rogers to put on a show trial.
“One of the more damaging aspects of selectively leaking incomplete information is that it paints an inaccurate picture and fosters distrust in our government,” Rogers declared in his opening argument. “This is particularly so when those of us who have taken an oath to protect information that can damage the national security if released, cannot publicly provide clarifying information because it remains classified. It is at times like these where our enemies within become almost as damaging as our enemies on the outside.”
He continued, “It is critically important to protect sources and methods so we aren’t giving the enemy our playbook. It is also important, however, to be able to talk about how these programs help protect us so that they continue to be reauthorized.” (Notice: This is what officials in government mean by transparency. They want only information that affirms policies or programs and nothing that would make it difficult to continue normalized policies or programs.)
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, ranking member of the committee, began his opening argument by suggesting that patriots working at the NSA are going to work every day worried the American public thinks they are doing something wrong. He then stated, “We’re here today because of the brazen disclosure of critical classified information that keeps our country safe. This widespread leak by a 29-year-old American systems administrator put our country and our allies in danger by giving the terrorists a good look at the playbook that we use to protect our country. The terrorists now know many of our sources and methods.” [CNN’s Jake Tapper had an opportunity to ask him after the hearing if he really thinks al Qaeda does not know that US intelligence agencies are watching or monitoring them. That did not shift Ruppersberger’s opinion. He and others really do think the terrorists aren’t just evil but stupid.]
As the hearing was coming to a close, Rogers decided to ask a “couple clarifying questions,” which really were questions a US government prosecutor would ask in court if Snowden was on trial.
ROGERS: Does China have an adversarial intelligence service directed at the United States?
JOYCE: Yes, they do
ROGERS: Do they perform economic espionage activities targeted at US companies in the United States?
JOYCE: Yes, they do
ROGERS: Do they conduct espionage activities toward military and intelligence services both here and abroad that belong to the United States of America?
JOYCE: Yes, they do.
ROGERS: Do they target policymakers and decision makers, Department of State and other policy makers that might engage in foreign affairs when it comes to the United States?
ROGERS: How would you rate them as an adversarial intelligence service given the other intelligence services that we know are adversarial—the Russians, the Iranians, the others?
JOYCE: They are one of our top adversaries.
ROGERS: And you have had a string of successes recently in prosecutions for Chinese espionage activities in the United States, is that correct?
JOYCE: That is correct.
ROGERS: So that has been both economic and if I understand it as well as military efforts. So they have been very aggressive in their espionage activities toward the United States, is that a fair assessment?
JOYCE: I think they have been very aggressive against United States interests.
Then, Rogers tried to ask a similar question of Alexander: “How would you describe in an unclassified way the Chinese cyber efforts for both espionage and their military capability to conduct disruptive attacks toaward the United States?”
Alexander tried to take the high ground and said something about how America should not have an adversarial relationship with China and nations need to establish acceptable practices (whatever that means). Rogers brought him back into the show he had come to the committee to put on.
ROGERS: Would you say that China engages in cyber economic espionageagainst intellectual property, to steal intellectual property in the United States?
ROGERS: Would you argue that they engage in cyber activities to steal both military and intelligence secrets of the United States?
Well, that settled it for Rogers. Snowden clearly was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage because his efforts assisted China.
“I think this is important that we put it in context about several things, I think, Americans want to know the relationship between Mr Snowden and where he finds home today and we know that we’re doing a full investigation into possible connections with any nation state who might take advantage of this activity,” he concluded.
Oh, and also, Rogers added that he would dispute the idea that there had not been any changes in the tactics and operations of al Qaeda as a result. He asked the witnesses, “Do you believe that al Qaeda elements just historically when issues have been disclosed change the way they operate to target both soldiers abroad and their terrorist plotting activities, movements, financing, weaponization and training?
Litt responded, “We know that they’ve seen,” the disclosuress. “We know they’ve commented on it. What we don’t know is in the long term what impact it’s going to have on our collection capabilities.” To which Rogers claimed that “in certain cases, in certain countries, they have changed their behavior.” They have historically changed the “way they target US troops based on certain understandings of communications.” And he said, “[I] guarantee you it’s absolutely correct.”
During a chat hosted by The Guardian on June 17, Snowden commented when asked by Greenwald why he went to Hong Kong, “The US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.”
The committee hearing validates his comment. Rogers set out to glean circumstantial evidence to further convince Americans he is a traitor, even though his disclosures have set off a debate about surveillance programs and policies that never should have been secret, did not need to be secret and would never have been had by Congress for the benefit of the public if Snowden had not provided documents to the press.
This is what military prosecutor Cpt. Joe Morrow said on the first day of the trial against Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier the military is prosecuting for disclosing US government information to WikiLeaks:
“…[T]his is a case about a soldier who systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of documents from classified databases and then literally dumped that information on to the Internet and into the hands of the enemy. Material he knew, based on his training and experience, could put the lives and welfare of his fellow soldiers at risk…”
Without evidence, the prosecutors have sought to argue that Manning was working on behalf of WikiLeaks and referred to a crowd-sourced list of “Most Wanted” leaks when deciding what secrets he was going to provide to WikiLeaks.
It is not very different from what Rogers did today. The only difference is that Morrow has made his allegations in a military courtroom where he was supposed to behave like a prosecutor. Rogers, on the other hand, is a member of Congress and should not have sought to fuel the Justice Department’s case against Snowden.
Rogers ended the hearing with this melodramatic statement, “We may have found that it is easier for a systems administrator to steal the information than it is for us to access the program in order for us to prevent a terrorist attack.”
All Rogers did was further bring into focus the reality that the legislative branch, particularly its intelligence committees that are supposed to hold oversight hearings, have been completely indoctrinated by the national security agencies.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, does not even want to take the time to put on a show trial like Rogers did today. She thinks Snowden committed an “act of treason” but said the Senate will not be having a committee hearing on the NSA programs exposed by Snowden any time soon.
Congress members like Feinstein, Ruppersberger and Rogers cannot provide oversight because they are fawning supporters of them and their devotion to policies and programs blinds them to any defects that might make abuses of authority and violations of civil liberties likely to occur. Therefore, when someone like Snowden engages in an act of conscience and risks his livelihood and future so the public can know what their government is doing, their reaction is not to embrace debate but to shift into overdrive, as they assist government agencies like the NSA (which is now facing scrutiny) with a public relations campaign carefully staged to calm the population.
And members of Congress work hand-in-hand with national security agencies to cast a whistleblower like Snowden as a traitor or espionage actor who aided enemies in a public prosecution before he ever gets before a judge, who actually has the legitimate authority to decide whether he committed a crime that could have aided an enemy, advantaged a foreign nation or endangered American lives.