Today’s New York Times addresses intelligence oversight issues raised during yesterday’s hearings for Gen. Michael Hayden. According to the Times, Senators’ complaints they they are being kept in the dark about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance and telephone data-mining programs have a “Congressional inferiority complex.” Those who questioned the lack of oversight yesterday were throwing the “Congressional equivalent of a temper tantrum.”
That’s an interesting description of the Constitutional balance of powers. In fact, as the resolution establishing the Senate Intelligence Committee – passed thirty years ago today – made clear:
“¦ it is the purpose of this resolution to establish a new select committee of the Senate “¦ [and] it is further the purpose of this resolution to provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.
The NYT report goes on to parrot the line of the Pat Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that seniority dictated who was briefed on these intelligence matters:
Life in Congress is determined by seniority, so in the hierarchy of the briefed and the briefed-nots, the longest serving Intelligence Committee members came first.
Actually, that’s not the case. According to the law on these matters, the National Security Act of 1947:
The President shall ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are kept fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States.
No mention of seniority there.
Ultimately, the Chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have decided, in consultation with the White House, which members of the Intelligence Committees should get to conduct oversight on sensitive intelligence programs. There’s no legal authority for such an action — and the practical result of it is simple: less oversight.