Senate Intelligence Committee Finally Decides That Maybe It Should Figure Out What The Intelligence Community Is Up To

Both houses of Congress set up their respective “Select Committees on Intelligence” in the mid-1970s as basically permanent extensions of the Church and Pike Committees that dug into widespread abuses of the US intelligence community in the preceding decades. The idea was that by creating permanent oversight committees, it would prevent the kinds of abuses that were commonly done by the FBI, NSA and CIA. And yet, as we’ve noted many times, the intelligence committees don’t seem to function as an oversight committee these days. Rather, they seem to be the committee designed to whitewash any abuses and to help the intelligence communities give a false veneer of legitimacy to their widespread abuses.

Just to put an exclamation point on the lack of real oversight, the Associated Press is now reporting that, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, then Senate Intelligence Committee boss (now “ranking member”), Dianne Feinstein, asked the committee to create a “secret encyclopedia” of all the various intelligence programs, because members and staffers apparently hadn’t been keeping track:

Trying to get a handle on hundreds of sensitive, closely held surveillance programs, a Senate committee is compiling a secret encyclopedia of American intelligence collection. It’s part of an effort to improve congressional oversight of the government’s sprawling global spying effort.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein launched the review in October 2013, after a leak by former National Security Agency systems administrator Edward Snowden disclosed that the NSA had been eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. Four months earlier, Snowden had revealed the existence of other programs that vacuumed up Americans’ and foreigners’ phone call records and electronic communications.

“We’re trying right now to look at every intelligence program,” Feinstein told the Associated Press. “There are hundreds of programs we have found … sprinkled all over. Many people in the departments don’t even know (they) are going on.”

Later in the article, Feinstein admits that the committee had not been “satisfactorily informed” about certain surveillance programs.

In other words, the committee clearly hasn’t been doing much “oversight.” Part of the problem is that so much of the work done by the intelligence community actually falls under executive order 12333. That’s the executive order issued by Reagan under which most of the key intelligence programs fall — and which Congress technically has no oversight mandate.

If the program started back in 2013, why is it only coming out now? Well, because with the changing of the guard in the latest Congress, Senator Richard Burr took over the Senate Intelligence Committee leadership, and he’s even more of an intelligence community defender than Feinstein ever was. In the past, he’s even argued that there should be no public hearings by the committee, and he’s basically fought against any effort for transparency, and always sides with the intelligence community. Given that, many expected him to just kill off Feinstein’s attempt at cataloging these programs — but apparently Burr and Feinstein worked out “a deal” to continue — but it appears that the “deal” also involves ending this effort by September, and no longer using two staffers from the executive branch who were familiar with these programs:

Feinstein, a California Democrat, initially wasn’t sure that Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who took her place as chairman of the panel when Republicans took control of the Senate in January, would agree to continue the review. But Burr and Feinstein recently reached an agreement to do so, said Senate aides. They were not authorized to discuss the inner committee workings publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Two executive branch officials who had been detailed to the committee are returning to the executive branch and will not be replaced, the aides said, so the effort will be entirely the work of congressional staff. The project will end in September, the aides said.

Of course, for the past few years, Feinstein had insisted that the Committee was fully informed — and only now it’s coming out that she admits they weren’t really. Except, now the committee is controlled by someone who is even more in the bag for the intelligence community than she was. Does anyone honestly think that the intelligence committees will now suddenly start doing a better job keeping the rest of Congress informed about what the intelligence community is up to?

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