A security technologist who has worked with journalists and analyzed documents from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden was asked to give a private briefing to a few members of Congress.
Bruce Schneier posted on his personal blog:
This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me — as someone with access to the Snowden documents — to explain to them what the NSA was doing. Of course I’m not going to give details on the meeting, except to say that it was candid and interesting. And that it’s extremely freaky that Congress has such a difficult time getting information out of the NSA that they have to ask me. I really want oversight to work better in this country.
Most of the members serve on the House Judiciary Committee and are supposed to conduct oversight. Goodlatte is even the chairman of the committee.
This experience sharply contrasts with what now-retired NSA deputy director John Inglis said in an NPR interview last week:
Whether it’s the Congress or the judiciary, we need to be completely transparent with them and give them every opportunity to understand the ins and outs of the policy choices that they would make and then confer upon us. And then second, beyond that, we have to figure out to what degree we’re going to extend that conversation to the American public. And it’s still early days. Even though we’re six months into this it’s still early days in terms of determining how and when that might take place.
The caveat, however, is that the NSA believes it should be “completely transparent” with the Select Intelligence Commitees in the House and Senate, not the Judiciary Committees. Why? Because Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, two unabashedly zealous defenders of the NSA are in charge and they can trust them to patronizingly explain to members of those committees how things work and ensure no real oversight accidentally occurs.
Inglis said when asked whether Congress members were surprised to learn what they have from documents from Snowden:
…I would say with respect to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence – so that’s the House side of the intelligence oversight – and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, there’s a fairly vigorous and I would say rigorous, right, degree of inquiries, hearings, staff-level engagements where they understand what NSA does, what its capabilities are, how we employ those capabilities. Such that, right, in the early part of June when all this was exposed, they weren’t very surprised…
Note: Inglis is referring expressly to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which the NSA believes authorizes the bulk data collection of phone records, and the surveillance that has been done under the FISA Amendments Act, including the PRISM program, where Internet companies were involved in helping the NSA gain access to the content of Americans’ communications. So, this does not cover all that has been disclosed, which a number of Congress members have been surprised to read about for the first time in newspapers.
Later in the NPR interview, Inglis said:
…[N]ow this is necessarily of greater interest to all of them and perhaps to particular subgroups of them, the judiciary committees on some of them. We welcome that insight. Our doors are always open to not simply the congressmen and the senators but to the staffers who would come up here. They are, by definition, cleared for everything we do. And so we have no qualms about sharing that with them, not least of which reason is it makes for better informed decisions on their part when they do grant us the authorities that we get…
The doors are always open. Except when they’re not and Congress members want to know what the NSA is actually doing in secret, particularly before the president delivers a major policy speech announcing what reforms his administration will support and not support.
Surreal part of setting up this meeting: I suggested that we hold this meeting in a SCIF, because they wanted me to talk about top secret documents that had not been made public. The problem is that I, as someone without a clearance, would not be allowed into the SCIF. So we had to have the meeting in a regular room.
To the shrill brigade of critics who do not consider Snowden a whistleblower, he has now had a role in ensuring some Congress members are informed. That includes Sensenbrenner, who is the co-author of a piece of legislation that would reform some of the NSA’s programs and policies.
This circumvention of surveillance state secrecy will encourage oversight. Right? Schneier even wrote, “This really was an extraordinary thing.”
Oh, but keep fabricating theories about how state secrets are now in the hands of Russians or Chinese. That is far more constructive to the conversation that should continue in this country.
Photo by Terry Robinson, used under Creative Commons license