Saturday, June 15, 2013

Enough Blame To Go Around

(Editorial cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (June 14, 2013) and featured at McClatchy DC.  Click on image to enlarge and then please return.)

Several congresscritters have been lamenting the extent of domestic spying being done and some even claim that they had no idea it was as extensive as it is.  Doyle McManus took a look at a couple of those claims and had some pretty harsh things to say about them.  He used the examples of Rep. Sensenbrenner and Sen. Mikulski who could have educated themselves and then asked the right questions in oversight sessions and didn't.

And there, in a nutshell, is one of the biggest weaknesses in our reliance on Congress to keep tabs on secret programs: Congress often isn't very good at it. The 9/11 Commission called oversight "dysfunctional" and suggested reforms, but Congress turned most of them down.

By law, members of Congress have access to most classified information, but they often have to ask for it. The two intelligence committees hold regular hearings and briefings on intelligence programs, but legislators who aren't on those panels usually aren't included.

And most of them like it that way, according to Stanford's Amy Zegart, who wrote a book about the oversight system, "Eyes on Spies." "Rational self-interest has led legislators … to sabotage Congress' oversight abilities," she wrote. Intelligence oversight is time-consuming, remote from constituents' interests and impossible to talk about publicly, factors that drive most members of Congress away.

To be fair, the intelligence agencies don't make the job easy. They often require members of Congress to ask exactly the right question before giving up an answer — a process former California Rep. Jane Harman calls "20 Questions." "That's a fair criticism," a former top CIA official told me. "Intelligence agencies don't ... open the pantry doors and invite members of Congress to rummage around. It's a natural reflex."   [Emphasis added]

And, as McManus points out, congressional staffers aren't allowed any access to classified information, so the elected officials have to carve time out to do the necessary work to educate themselves.  Still, that's what we elect them to do, what we pay them to do. So when Sensenbrenner and Mikulski complain that the spying goes far beyond what the Patriot Act intended, they need to be mackerel-slapped but good.

Nicely done, Mr. McManus.

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