There are over 400 people, heavily involved in politics, who used to have access to top secret government information but never went through any security clearance process. You know some of their names: Rick Santorum, Allen West, Bob Dole. Why haven't any of the politicians you haven't heard of, or wouldn't hear of if they stayed anonymous — former members of Congress who might want to score a few political points — revealed details of how Americans are being surreptitiously surveilled? Perhaps, in part, because the security apparatus keeps those people in the dark.
To become a member of Congress, as you probably know, you need only be elected. There is a sworn oath members of Congress take to defend the Constitution, but the only actual qualification is age. This is a feature of our democracy, not a bug, but it opens a weird dichotomy, noted frequently about eight years ago, and well-articulated by the San Diego Union Tribune.
Under the current system, congressional staff members and defense industry employees must go through rigorous background checks and an interviewing process before receiving a security clearance that gives them access to sensitive national security information. …
Meanwhile, members of Congress are subject to no such background investigations. Instead, once they are elected to office, they take an oath not to reveal national secrets.
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will not disclose any classified information received in the course of my service with the House of Representatives, except as authorized by the House of Representatives or in accordance with its Rules.
That oath is clearly vague and, like all oaths, depends on the taker's interpretation. Is it in effect in perpetuity? If so, how is that enforced?
It appears that the response from intelligence agencies has largely been to hold their cards very, very close to their chests. Classified briefings are often given only to congressional committees or congressional leaders, something that Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland noted last week, when she said the claim that the Congress had been "fully briefed" on security issues "drives us up a wall," given how limited those briefings tend to be.
In the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, the National Security Agency has necessarily been more forthcoming with details. On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a nine-term member from California, spoke to the press about a Tuesday briefing provided by the NSA. The Hill reported on her reaction.
"What we learned in there," Sanchez said, "is significantly more than what is out in the media today." …
"I can't speak to what we learned in there, and I don't know if there are other leaks, if there's more information somewhere, if somebody else is going to step up, but I will tell you that I believe it's the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Sanchez has been a member of the House since 1997, meaning (obviously) that she pre-dates the post-9/11 surveillance authorizations. She hasn't supported them: Four of the five times key measures came up for a vote, she voted no; once, for the 2011 PATRIOT Act extension, she abstained. But her language is telling. First, that she and her colleagues still had details to learn. She implies that the best existing source she had for her information was the media; the new information was far more vast than what she realized.
Even more telling, however, is the phrase: "if somebody else is going to step up." Sanchez has consistently opposed the legislation at-hand, but clearly still found the new information to be concerning. She didn't simply say, "if there are other leaks" — she wondered if another whistleblower would "step up." It is very easy to read that as an expression of desire.
As details of the NSA's behavior are becoming public, the American people are increasingly willing to accept the need for more information. More respondents to one Reuters poll felt that Snowden's actions were heroic than traitorous — though nearly half didn't see the issue as clear-cut. A new poll from The Guardian (which has a dog in the fight) indicates that people want further review of the NSA.
[T]wo-thirds of voters who responded said that in the light of a week-long series of leaked disclosures about the NSA's surveillance activities they wanted to see its role reviewed. Only 20% thought there were no grounds for further review, while 14% could not say either way.
In a separate question, 56% said that they believed Congress had failed to conduct sufficient oversight of the NSA.
For a former member of Congress, a political opportunity is presenting itself: become a champion of transparency by sharing some details of the extensive security state. How voters would react to such a disclosure depends on the constituency and the manner in which it happened, but, on this lengthy list of former members, there are several who might be able to walk that line.
The best way for the NSA to offset such a thing is to demonstrate a willingness for reform and oversight. During a Senate Appropriations hearing on Wednesday, the organization's head, Keith Alexander, expressed a willingness to participate in oversight, saying "I want the American people to know that we're trying to be transparent here." President Bush's former NSA director appeared on CNN that evening, saying that the Obama administration had been more transparent than his boss' had been.
That trend will likely continue. If Americans quickly lose interest, as we have before, the NSA will return to the shadows with a contented sigh. If, however, voters push for more information, we may see a high-profile whistleblower who sees that as a political opportunity.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.