Congressmen who asked about oversight of NSA mass surveillance and domestic spying in 2013 could have “compromise[d] security” and were denied the records they sought because of concerns they lacked formal government security clearance, a former member of the House Intelligence Committee says in a newly-released video.
The footage, from an August 29, 2013 town hall meeting, sheds new light on why lawmakers were denied key rulings and reports from the secret courts overseeing the National Security Agency — even as the Obama administration and intelligence officials claimed that all NSA programs were subject to strict congressional oversight and therefore could be held accountable.
In the video, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., then a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, discusses why Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., should not and did not receive information they sought from the committee. The committee had previously declined to explain why the information was withheld, going so far as to tell Grayson that even its discussion of his request was classified. Because the committee, like its Senate counterpart, tends to be particularly sympathetic to the intelligence community, getting information to non-committee members like Grayson and Griffith is potentially crucial to reforming U.S. spy agencies. And in late 2013, following revelations of mass surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, there were any number of reform bills pending.
At the time, President Obama defended bulk collection of telephone metadata, claiming in a press conference that “these programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. And if there are Members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up.”
Writing for The Guardian, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald pointed out that several lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Blumental, D-Conn., were unaware of the NSA’s bulk data collection efforts, and even more concerning, other lawmakers, including Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., Griffith, and Grayson were blocked from accessing oversight documents even after making multiple requests. Griffith, a Tea Party-aligned lawmaker, had requested access to FISA court orders concerning the NSA program, but was repeatedly ignored. Grayson, a progressive, faced similar treatment after requesting FISA court opinions and documents relating to the PRISM program. The House Intelligence Committee denied Grayson’s request, and later told the congressman that the committee discussion regarding his denial was classified.
The previously unreleased video — recorded by Oakland, California-based poet Julian Francis Park and shared with The Intercept — shows Langevin, who served on the House Intelligence Committee in 2013 when it denied Grayson’s request for documents, explaining to a town hall attendee that Griffith and Grayson “can’t have access” because “they’re not cleared” and “may compromise security”:
LANGEVIN: In all of this stuff, no one has yet come forward and pointed to a situation where someone has fraudulent [sic] or violated the law and done things that have compromised anyone’s privacy or civil liberties. And they would be held accountable. It hasn’t in all of this stuff, they may have released how these programs worked, but no one has said, “All of these people, ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ ‘Z,’ have violated the law or the Constitution.”
Q: But even Congressman Grayson and Griffith can’t get the answers.
LANGEVIN: Just some of the things that they want, they can’t have access to because they’re not cleared to do it. And they again, they have oversight committees for a reason. There are things that they want access to that if they were to do it, they’d read these programs, again, it may compromise security. I can’t off the top of my head tell you what it is they want to know, but not every member of Congress is going to get access to information that they are seeking …. Otherwise, you, you could argue that we couldn’t have classified information or classified programs and I would argue they exist for a reason.
“Rep. Griffith was ultimately able to review information, but it took in excess of 100 days to receive the authority from the Intelligence Committee,” said Andie Pivarunas, Griffith’s spokesperson, in a statement emailed to The Intercept.
Grayson says he was ultimately denied the information about NSA surveillance activity that he sought. “The Republicans on the Intelligence Committee were unhappy that I discussed the Guardian coverage of the Snowden revelations on the floor of the House,” he says in an interview.
Grayson noted that the House Intelligence Committee maintains rules requiring lawmakers not on the committee to obtain permission from them to view classified information. “The committee has no authority to make those kinds of distinctions,” says Grayson. “They’ve created two tiers for members of Congress,” he adds. “I’m not aware of any statutory authority for such a distinction; but it’s just a power grab as members of Intelligence and I have the same constitutional authority.”
“It is a practical impossibility for members of the House of Representatives to do effective job of oversight of the intelligence community given the current structure of the House and its rules,” says Patrick Eddington, the Cato Institute’s policy analyst in Homeland Security and civil liberties. He explains that only a “tiny set of members” and staff have access to information about the NSA and other classified matters.
“Let’s remember that what Mr. Grayson and Mr. Griffith and others were seeking access to was information on programs that they were asked to cast votes on,” adds Eddington, a former senior policy advisor to Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and a former CIA analyst. “These revelations from Mr. Snowden and potentially other sources … should have sparked the creation long ago of a Joint Congressional Investigative Committee to explore all of this stuff, and it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s just another example of the collapse of congressional oversight.”
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