One of the National Security Agency’s biggest defenders in Congress is suddenly at odds with the agency and calling for a top-to-bottom review of U.S. spy programs. And her long-time friends and allies are completely mystified by the switch.
"We’re really screwed now," one NSA official told The Cable. "You know things are bad when the few friends you’ve got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address."
In a pointed statement issued today, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein said she was "totally opposed" to gathering intelligence on foreign leaders and said it was "a big problem" if President Obama didn’t know the NSA was monitoring the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said the United States should only be spying on foreign leaders with hostile countries, or in an emergency, and even then the president should personally approve the surveillance.
It was not clear what precipitated Feinstein’s condemnation of the NSA. It marks a significant reversal for a lawmaker who not only defended agency surveillance programs — but is about to introduce a bill expected to protect some of its most controversial activities.
Perhaps most significant is her announcement that the intelligence committee "will initiate a review into all intelligence collection programs." Feinstein did not say the review would be limited only to the NSA. If the review also touched on other intelligence agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction, it could be one of the most far-reaching reviews in recent memory, encompassing secret programs of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, agencies that run imagery and spy satellites, as well as components of the FBI.
A former intelligence agency liaison to Congress said Feinstein’s sudden outrage over spying on foreign leaders raised questions about how well informed she was about NSA programs and whether she’d been fully briefed by her staff. "The first question I’d ask is, what have you been doing for oversight? Second, if you’ve been reviewing this all along what has changed your mind?"
The former official said the intelligence committees receive lengthy and detailed descriptions every year about all NSA programs, including surveillance. "They’re not small books. They’re about the size of those old family photo albums that were several inches thick. They’re hundreds of pages long."
A senior congressional aide said, "It’s an absolute joke to think she hasn’t been reading the signals intelligence intercepts as Chairman of Senate Intelligence for years."
The former official added that the "bottom line question is where was the Senate Intelligence Committee when it came to their oversight of these programs? And what were they being told by the NSA, because if they didn’t know about this surveillance, that would imply they were being lied to."
A spokesperson for Feinstein did not respond to a request for more details in time for publication. And a spokesperson for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence committee’s vice chairman, said the senator had no comment at this time.
In a tacit acknowledgement of how supportive Feinstein has been of the administration’s surveillance practices, the White House issued a lengthy statement about her Monday remarks.
"We consult regularly with Chairman Feinstein as a part of our ongoing engagement with the Congress on national security matters," said National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. "We appreciate her continued leadership on these issues as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I’m not going to go into the details of those private discussions, nor am I going to comment on assertions made in the Senator’s statement today about U.S. foreign intelligence activities." The statement went on to note the administration’s current review of surveillance practices worldwide.
The surprise change of tone comes during a crucial week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers on opposing sides of the surveillance debate look to introduce rival bills related to the NSA.
Striking first blood, opponents of expansive NSA surveillance are expected to introduce the "USA Freedom Act" on Tuesday, which would limit the bulk data collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, install an "office of the special advocate" to appeal FISA court decisions, and give subpoena powers on privacy matters to the Privacy and Civil LIberties Oversight Board. Sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI), the bill is backed by a strong bipartisan bench of some 60 lawmakers, including Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), and Justin Amash (R-MI) and Sheila Jackson (D-TX).
A draft of the bill was provided to The Cable by a congressional aide and can be viewed in full here.
Unlike many House bills, Freedom Act has some bipartisan support in the Senate in the form of Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who will be introducing a similar bill at the same time.
On the opposing side is Feinstein, who is looking to codify the NSA’s controversial phone records program in her bill set for markup this week. According to published reports, the bill would give the agency the authority to vacuum metadata of all U.S. phone calls but not their content, meaning duration, numbers, and time of phone calls are fair game. A spokesperson for Feinstein said that the senator plans to move forward with the bill even in light of today’s rhetorical about-face.
While the Feinstein bill could gain support in the Senate, a Congressional aide familiar with the politics in the House say it’s likely dead on arrival in the lower chamber. If it went down, however, pro-surveillance lawmakers would still likely put up a fight.
"The fact is, the NSA has done more to save German lives than the German army since World War II," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said on CNN.
Still, others often in favor of government surveillance have carved out surprising positions. Republican hawk John McCain, for instance, is now calling for a special select committee to investigate U.S. spying. "We have always eavesdropped on people around the world. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and I think you might make an argument that some of this capability has been very offensive both to us and to our allies," McCain said.
Over at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Monday refused to comment on the NSA’s surveillance of world leaders, dismissing questions about what he may or may not have known about intelligence collection. "We have great respect for our partners, our allies, who cooperate with us and we cooperate with them to try to keep the world safe," said Hagel, standing beside New Zealand Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman during a Pentagon press briefing. "Intelligence is a key part of that. And I think this issue will continue to be explored, as — as it is now, but that’s all I have to say."
Coleman responded to the same question: "New Zealand’s not worried at all about this," he said. "We don’t believe it would be occurring, and look, quite frankly there’d be nothing that anyone could hear in our private conversations that we wouldn’t be prep[ared to share publicly." Coleman then cited a political cartoon in a newspaper in Wellington. It showed an analyst listening to the communiques from New Zealand with a big stream of "ZZZs" next to it. "I don’t think New Zealand’s got anything to worry about, and we have high trust in our relationships with the U.S."
With additional reporting by Matthew Aid and Gordon Lubold