One of the National Security Agency's biggest defenders inCongress is suddenly at odds with the agency and calling for a top-to-bottomreview of U.S. spy programs. And her long-time friends and allies arecompletely mystified by the switch.
"We're really screwed now," one NSA official told The Cable. "You know things are bad whenthe few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night andleave no forwarding address."
In a pointed statement issued today, Senate IntelligenceCommittee chairman Dianne Feinstein said she was "totally opposed" to gatheringintelligence on foreign leaders and said it was "a big problem" if PresidentObama didn't know the NSA was monitoring the phone calls of German ChancellorAngela Merkel. She said the United States should only be spying on foreignleaders with hostile countries, or in an emergency, and even then the presidentshould personally approve the surveillance.
It was not clear what precipitated Feinstein's condemnation ofthe NSA. It marks a significant reversal for a lawmaker who not only defendedagency surveillance programs -- but is about to introduce a bill expected toprotect some of its most controversial activities.
Perhaps most significant is her announcement that theintelligence committee "will initiate a review into all intelligence collectionprograms." Feinstein did not say the review would be limited only to the NSA.If the review also touched on other intelligence agencies under the committee'sjurisdiction, it could be one of the most far-reaching reviews in recentmemory, encompassing secret programs of the CIA, the Defense IntelligenceAgency, agencies that run imagery and spy satellites, as well as components ofthe FBI.
A former intelligence agency liaison to Congress said Feinstein'ssudden outrage over spying on foreign leaders raised questions about how wellinformed she was about NSA programs and whether she'd been fully briefed by herstaff. "The first question I'd ask is, what have you been doing for oversight?Second, if you've been reviewing this all along what has changed your mind?"
The former official said the intelligence committees receivelengthy and detailed descriptions every year about all NSA programs, including surveillance. "They're not small books. They're about the size of those oldfamily photo albums that were several inches thick. They're hundreds of pageslong."
A senior congressional aide said, "It's an absolute joke tothink she hasn't been reading the signals intelligence intercepts as Chairmanof Senate Intelligence for years."
The former official added that the "bottom line question iswhere was the Senate Intelligence Committee when it came to their oversight ofthese programs? And what were they being told by the NSA, because if theydidn't know about this surveillance, that would imply they were being lied to."
A spokesperson for Feinstein did not respond to a request formore details in time for publication. And a spokesperson for Sen. SaxbyChambliss, the intelligence committee's vice chairman, said the senator had nocomment at this time.
In a tacit acknowledgement of how supportive Feinstein has beenof the administration's surveillance practices, the White House issued alengthy statement about her Monday statement.
"We consult regularly with Chairman Feinstein as a part ofour ongoing engagement with the Congress on national security matters," saidNational Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. "We appreciate hercontinued leadership on these issues as Chairman of the Senate IntelligenceCommittee. I'm not going to go intothe details of those private discussions, nor am I going to comment onassertions made in the Senator's statement today about U.S. foreignintelligence activities." The statement went on to note the administration's currentreview of surveillance practices worldwide.
The surprise change of tone comes during a crucial week onCapitol Hill as lawmakers on opposing sides of the surveillance debate look tointroduce rival bills related to the NSA.
Striking first blood, opponents of expansive NSA surveillanceare expected to introduce the "USA Freedom Act" on Tuesday, which would limitthe bulk data collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act,install an "office of the special advocate" to appeal FISA court decisions, andgive subpoena powers on privacy matters to the Privacy and Civil LIbertiesOversight Board. Sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers(D-MI), the bill is backed by a strong bipartisan bench of some 60lawmakers, including Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), and JustinAmash (R-MI) and Sheila Jackson (D-TX).
A draft of the bill was provided to The Cable by a congressional aide and can be viewed in full here.
Unlike many House bills, Freedom Act has some bipartisan supportin the Senate in the form of Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who will beintroducing a similar bill at the same time.
On the opposing side is Feinstein, who is looking to codify theNSA's controversial phone records program in her bill set for markup this week.According to published reports, the bill would give theagency the authority to vacuum metadata of all U.S. phone calls but not theircontent, meaning duration, numbers, and time of phone calls are fair game. Aspokesperson for Feinstein said that the senator plans to move forward with thebill even in light of today's rhetorical about-face.
While the Feinstein bill could gain support in the Senate, aCongressional aide familiar with the politics in the House say it's likely deadon arrival in the lower chamber. If it went down, however, pro-surveillancelawmakers would still likely put up a fight.
"The fact is, the NSA has done more to save German lives thanthe German army since World War II," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said on CNN.
Still, others often in favor of government surveillance havecarved out surprising positions. Republican hawk John McCain, for instance, isnow calling for a special select committee toinvestigate U.S. spying. "We have always eavesdropped on people around theworld. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and Ithink you might make an argument that some of this capability has been veryoffensive both to us and to our allies," McCain said.
Over at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Mondayrefused to comment on the NSA's surveillance of world leaders, dismissingquestions about what he may or may not have known about intelligencecollection. "We have great respect for our partners, our allies, whocooperate with us and we cooperate with them to try to keep the worldsafe," said Hagel, standing beside New Zealand Minister of DefenseJonathan Coleman during a Pentagon press briefing. "Intelligence is a keypart of that. And I think this issue will continue to be explored, as -- as itis now, but that's all I have to say."
Coleman responded to the same question: "New Zealand's notworried at all about this," he said. "We don't believe it would beoccurring, and look, quite frankly there'd be nothing that anyone could hear inour private conversations that we wouldn't be prep[ared to sharepublicly." Coleman then cited a political cartoon in a newspaper inWellington. It showed an analyst listening to the communiques from New Zealandwith a big stream of "ZZZs" next to it. "I don't think NewZealand's got anything to worry about, and we have high trust in ourrelationships with the U.S."
With additional reporting by Matthew Aid and Gordon Lubold