The newest revelations about the National Security Agency may be shocking to the rest of us. To the congressional overseers of the American intelligence services, not so much. They’re still catching up from a holiday weekend. Or maybe they’ve just become numb to the whole spying-on-ordinary-people thing.
Using files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the NSA scooped up the communications of innocent Internet users, including Americans, and that those not targeted by the agency far outnumber those targeted by the agency.
Personal and intimate information—details on romantic relationships, résumés, pictures—for thousands of non-targeted individuals have all been caught in the NSA’s surveillance driftnet, according to the newspaper.
All of that, you might think, would be a matter of some interest to the senators who control the budgets and oversee the activities of the nation’s military and intelligence agencies.
Or not. Sen. Lindsey Graham—who sits on the Senate’s armed services, appropriations, and judiciary committees and is one of the Republican Party’s most prominent voices on defense and intelligence issues—wasn’t familiar with the Post piece.
“I don’t really know the details about what they’re saying in the paper. I know [NSA intelligence-gathering] is necessary. We’re at war with radical Islam,” Graham said.
Nearly two days after the release of The Washington Post’s report, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, who has direct oversight of the NSA, was just beginning to be fully briefed in the issue.
“I’m just in the process of looking into that,” Feinstein said.
Analysts for the intelligence agency hid, or “minimized,” references to Americans, but in other files the Post found references to email addresses that “could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S. residents.”
“I don’t really know the details about what they’re saying in the paper. I know [NSA intelligence-gathering] is necessary. We’re at war with radical Islam.”
Further, many of the people caught up in the NSA’s intelligence collection could not be lawfully considered targets, at least not under ordinary circumstances.
“It is of concern to me. I want to look into a reason why instead of minimizing [information] we can’t just delete it. I haven’t finished doing that,” Feinstein said.
Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, said he had seen the Post’s report but had no comment.
Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of Feinstein’s committee, came out of the Senate’s Monday votes challenging the veracity of the report, saying the “story is not accurate.” Pressed on where it was inaccurate, Coburn said, “I can’t tell you in what way. If I could tell you in what way, I would.”
But the news had not reached most senators, even those most well-versed on intelligence and defense issues.
The lack of Senate knowledge about the latest NSA revelations indicates two things: how slowly information travels among lawmakers during a congressional recess; and how even shocking new NSA revelations have become somewhat ho-hum in the nation’s capital.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was in Afghanistan and hadn’t had a chance to catch up. Sen. James Inhofe, his Republican counterpart, hadn’t seen the story. Sen. Angus King, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he didn’t know the facts behind the newest revelations yet. He wasn’t alone.