Elected officials and leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) must maintain the integrity of America’s vast intelligence enterprise as a lawful, neutral, independent and fair arbiter of facts. Recent news that the Obama White House obtained intelligence containing private conversations of members of Congress and American Jewish organizations from the National Security Agency (NSA) suggests the integrity of our intelligence agencies have been undermined.
The heads of the 17 organizations in the IC oversee a massive foreign data collection network that produces sensitive information on adversaries and allies.
It is an awesome capability for good, but it poses a threat to free society if exploited for political purposes.
The prospect of the White House – or any political element – using one of these agencies to mine information on members of Congress and U.S. citizens is frightening and criminal. So it is of grave concern to learn that the administration allegedly permitted the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor American communications between the Israeli prime minister and U.S. Congressmen and members of Jewish organizations during the sensitive domestic political debate on the Iran nuclear agreement.
Lawmakers must respond quickly. This is about the NSA potentially violating constitutionally protected civil liberties.
The rules are clear. When the electronic communications of U.S. citizens are inadvertently swept up, which happens frequently, the NSA is required to immediately minimize them.
First, it needs to identify the phone number associated with the person and cease monitoring it. Second, any reference to the individual in collected data must be eliminated.
And there are special NSA rules if information about the discussions or communications of members of Congress is collected. Under NSA rules, this information is supposed to be destroyed unless the NSA Director issues a waiver to collect and disseminate this information because of a compelling foreign intelligence reason.
The administration likely failed on all of these counts. It apparently looked the other way and didn’t implement long established safeguards. That is why this issue is so serious.
The government can only retain content on Americans when it contains national security implications and must obtain a court warrant if it wants to maintain surveillance on an American person. Israel’s prime minister has no protections.
More to the point, this alleged surveillance was never about national security. The White House wanted to learn the strategies that opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement would use to attack the president’s political agenda.
Congress should demand a full accounting, which should not take long. The NSA has all of the information lawmakers need at its fingertips.
Here are seven questions that the administration needs to answer about the continued monitoring of U.S. persons by the NSA.
- Exactly how many and specifically which Americans were monitored?
- On which members of Congress did the NSA spy?
- How many conversations were collected and what did they disclose?
- Who within the IC knew about the ongoing and intentional collection of American communications with the Israeli prime minister? Did NSA Director Mike Rogers know? Who approved it?
- Who within the White House knew of this collection and who knew of its content? Did they attempt to stop this collection once they became aware that it was possibly illegal?
- How did the NSA justify and rationalize providing the White House with intelligence on the private conversations by members of Congress and American Jewish organizayions? At what security level was the information transferred to the White House?
- Did this surveillance practice extend to any other intelligence agencies?
There needs to be a full public accounting.
This is not an isolated instance of IC negligence. CENTCOM is under investigation for cooking the intelligence on the threat from ISIS.
Both are serious violations of the public trust, but the NSA case is potentially so egregious that it threatens the very credibility of the IC. Whether conservative, progressive, Republican, Democrat or Libertarian, all Americans fear the immense capability of government to target them. A proportional reaction is required because it extends to the very heart of constitutionally guaranteed protections.
I strongly disagreed with Edward Snowden’s actions and the substance of his allegations, but the NSA might have fulfilled his predictions that the government would unleash the IC capabilities for unlawful domestic purposes.
Speaker Paul Ryan should suspend the president’s invitation to deliver his State of the Union address from the House chamber on January 12 until the administration fully complies with all congressional demands.
Congress must act forcefully now. Extraordinary abuse requires an extraordinary response.
Pete Hoekstra is the Senior Shillman Fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism and the former Chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.