Who’s keeping watch of the National Security Agency? In Congress, the answer in more and more cases is that the job is going to former lobbyists for NSA contractors and other intelligence community insiders.
A wave of recent appointments has placed intelligence industry insiders into key Congressional roles overseeing intelligence gathering. The influx of insiders is particularly alarming because lawmakers in Washington are set to take up a series of sensitive surveillance and intelligence issues this year, from reform of the Patriot Act to far-reaching “information sharing” legislation.
After the first revelations of domestic surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, President Obama defended the spying programs by claiming they were “subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate.” But as Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., and other members of Congress have pointed out, there is essentially a “two-tiered” system for oversight, with lawmakers and staff on specialized committees, such as the House and Senate committees on Intelligence and Homeland Security, controlling the flow of information and routinely excluding other Congress members, even those who have asked for specific information relating to pending legislation.
The Intercept reviewed the new gatekeepers in Congress, the leading staffers on the committees overseeing intelligence and surveillance matters, and found a large number of lobbyists and consultants passing through the revolving door between the intelligence community and the watchdogs who purportedly oversee the intelligence community. We reached out to each of them earlier this week and have yet to hear back:
Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, appointed as the committee’s Deputy Staff Director Dr. Robert Kadlec, a consultant who earned $451,000 last year advising a number of intelligence-related companies, including Invincea, a DARPA project, and Scitor, a contractor to the NSA. Another recently minted Senate Intelligence Committee staffer is Matthew Pollard, who previously worked as a lobbyist for Orbital Sciences Corporation, a company that provides “space-based military and intelligence operations,” according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Intelligence Online, a trade publication for the intelligence industry, reported that DARPA contracts with Orbital to work on round-the-clock global imagery technology. Pollard is a bipartisan staff member, meaning he serves both the majority and minority members on the committee.
Lobbyist influence is a particularly sensitive issue when it comes to intelligence committees, since those committees oversee secret “black budgets” in which money is disbursed with greatly reduced public oversight. The potential for self dealing is significant; former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., was caught accepting bribes to essentially earmark government contracts into a black budget.
Democrats have appointed fewer lobbyists to power for intelligence-related committees in recent years, but have not been immune to similar influence-peddling scandals concerning defense contracts. Former House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Tex., raised $50,000 in campaign cash from a lobbying shop called the PMA Group just before earmarking defense contract funds to PMA Group clients. The PMA Group’s founder, Paul Magliocchetti, was later convicted for making false statements and making illegal campaign donations.
But lobbyist control over the House and Senate intelligence and homeland security committees may have a profound impact on a range of surveillance issues debated by Congress this year, including the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act and the Patriot Act.
“This is an extreme case of an industry capturing the legislative committees that oversee the industry,” says Craig Holman, a lobbying and government ethics expert at Public Citizen, an advocacy group with a strong focus on corporate accountability. “While the reverse revolving door, in which industry moves their lobbyists and executives into the government committees and agencies that regulate the industry, is disturbingly commonplace in most sectors, this sounds like the cybersecurity industry has a lock on the relevant congressional committees.”
Photo: House Intelligence Committee