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NSA Director Gave Senator Private Tour During Debate Over Foreign intelligence Collection
Admiral Michael Rogers appears to be stepping up his efforts to preserve the intelligence community’s “crown jewels.”
The National Security Agency has been lobbying a key senator amid debates about whether to reauthorize the NSA’s foreign intelligence programs when the law sunsets on December 31, 2017.
Two congressional sources confirmed a May meeting, where Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Tex.), a vocal supporter of the intelligence community, got a private audience with the NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers.
Cornyn also got a private tour of the signals intelligence facility at Fort Meade, Maryland at the same time as the May meeting. He had visited the campus several months prior with other officials for an introductory tour, a typical event for lawmakers new to the committee.
Congressional sources familiar with the meeting expressed concern that the private access Cornyn was given may have provided him with an opportunity to provide input and get information that other members of the intelligence committee, and other panels responsible for oversight of the NSA, didn’t have. Of particular concern is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that allows the NSA to scoop up digital communications travelling over underwater Internet cables and directly from providers and tech companies.
“It seems odd that any senator tasked with evaluating and reauthorizing the program wouldn’t have the chance to review it to whatever degree they’d like,” Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at nonprofit civil liberties organization Constitution Project, wrote to Foreign Policy.
The NSA and Sen. Cornyn’s spokesman declined to comment on the meeting, which occurred just months before Section 702 is due to expire at the end of the year, unless lawmakers reauthorize it or reform it.
The law has sparked a heated debate about the values and drawbacks of certain features of NSA’s programs ever since 2013, when former contractor Edward Snowden revealed details about them by giving classified documents to journalists.
Privacy advocates don’t believe there are enough protections, and that there’s too much backdoor access for domestic law enforcement. But the intelligence community argues that reauthorizing the law, without reform, is needed to protect the “crown jewels” critical in the fight against terrorism and other worldwide threats.
It’s normal for a new member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to be brief by NSA, and other Senators have visited the secretive agency for tours, with staffers or without, to conduct oversight. But the timing of the private meeting coincides with a moment when the intelligence community is looking for congressional allies to save its key programs.
Cornyn has also been involved in oversight of the intelligence collection programs for years as a member of the Judiciary Committee. In early June, the month after his meeting with the NSA director, Cornyn supported a bill proposed by Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-Ark.) to make Section 702 permanent, eliminating the opportunity to reform the bill every couple years as technology and society change.
The battle over 702 has heated up in recent weeks as both sides ready for the reauthorization debate.
Also in early June, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, after promising to do his best to honor a President Obama-era commitment to give senators an estimate on how many Americans’ communications are incidentally collected when NSA is tracking digital and telephonic conversations overseas, publicly stated he could not disclose a figure.
While his predecessor, James Clapper, promised that he would release an estimate, and met with civil society groups on several occasions to discuss how that process would proceed, Coats now argues that doing so would be impractical, “infeasible,” and worsen privacy intrusions that already took place by searching for Americans’ names in the database.
Clapper did not return a request for comment, and the ODNI declined to comment.
While it’s within Coats’ authority to reverse an Obama-era policy, his reasons for doing so have been heavily criticized. The intelligence community admitted that making such an estimate is possible, and privacy advocates denied that performing such a search would do any further harm. Additionally, Coats did not inform all the relevant oversight committees ahead of time that he would not be disclosing a number—information several lawmakers believe is vital to understand the law and its practical impact on the American people.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images