338-88. That was the overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives last week to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection program. When little about our Congress is bipartisan, that vote showed remarkable unanimity among Republicans and Democrats that our intelligence agencies desperately need reining in, and soon.
From massive data mining of American’s personal information to the uncontrolled use of torture in secret prisons overseas to the rapid expansion of invasive drones, the time for oversight is now. But several controversial sections of the Patriot Act are about to expire and Congress is in a quagmire about what to do.
Let me offer one suggestion. Don’t make any long-term moves without serious analysis and examination. What is needed is an in-depth investigation of our intelligence agencies and Congress should take the lead with a special, select committee that includes key members involved in intelligence and homeland security issues. President Barack Obama should also issue an executive order to create a “Simpson-Bowles”-type commission on intelligence oversight for the 21st century. Both a Congressional investigation and presidential commission are long overdue.
Before September 11, 2001, oversight was lacking; since then it has been “how big a check can we write?” According to the Washington Post, Snowden-leaked documents indicate that our 16 spy agenciesemploy over 107,000 people and now spend over $70 billion. That is twice the budget of 2001.
Despite efforts to consolidate intelligence gathering and analysis after 9/11 there is still ample evidence that we are confronted with competing fiefdoms, lack of direction, confusing command and control and increased compartmentalization. This, combined with a rapidly growing complex technology that allows for easy collection, inexpensive storage and a vastly enhanced intrusive look at people’s personal information demands a fresh, new look at civil liberties, national security and the laws that govern intelligence.
The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that many of us worked on is woefully out of date, despite selective revisions. The passage of the Patriot Act that was done quickly after 9/11 needs to be seriously revisited. But right now, Congress is rushing to pass legislation without a serious and thorough look at what is needed and why it is needed. Right now, neither the Obama administration nor certain leaders in Congress want to rock the boat on intelligence.
Forty years ago this year the Church Committee was established to investigate domestic spying, assassination plots against foreign leaders and the lack of serious oversight of our intelligence agencies. Next week, two members of that committee, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Sen. Gary Hart, will headline a day-long look at strengthening intelligence oversight, sponsored by the Brennan Center. Along with former staff members of the Church Committee and other experts, they will explore paths to reform.
As a young staff member of that Committee, I felt that we were steering the country in the right direction, away from warrantless wiretaps of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., away from covert actions that hurt America abroad, away from a system without accountability or serious oversight. We produced 14 lengthy reports on abuses and suggested recommendations, many of which became law.
Now, the technology has changed, the threats have changed, the world has changed. It is high time that our country and our government take a good, hard look at the role and responsibility of our intelligence agencies, the laws that govern them and what kind of oversight is essential to preserving our democracy.