JULY 25, 2013
Spy Agencies Under Heaviest Scrutiny Since Abuse Scandal of the '70s
By SCOTT SHANE
American intelligence agencies, which experienced a boom in financing and public support in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have entered a period of broad public scrutiny and skepticism with few precedents since the exposure of spying secrets and abuses led to the historic investigation by the Senate's Church Committee nearly four decades ago.
On three fronts -- interrogation, drone strikes and now electronic surveillance -- critics inside and outside Congress have challenged the intelligence establishment, accusing officials of overreaching, misleading the public and covering up abuse and mistakes. With alarm over the threat of terrorism in slow decline despite the Boston Marathon attack in April, Americans of both parties appear to be no longer willing to give national security automatic priority over privacy and civil liberties.
On Thursday, leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees began talks aimed at reaching a consensus on adding privacy protections to National Security Agency programs after a measure to curtail the agency's collection of phone call data received strong bipartisan support on Wednesday. The amendment failed, 217 to 205, but the impassioned public debate on a program hidden for years showed the profound impact of the disclosures of Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who is now a fugitive from American criminal charges in Russia.
"We fight on," Representative Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican who proposed the amendment to end the phone log collection, said on Twitter.
The vote suggested that lawmakers are reading recent polls, which show Americans with deeply mixed feelings about the trade-offs of privacy and counterterrorism but growing less tolerant of what they see as intrusions. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed that 39 percent of those questioned say it is more important to protect privacy than to investigate terrorist threats. That was the highest number since the question was first asked in 2002, when it was 18 percent.
Powerful, secret government agencies have long existed in tension with American democracy, tolerated as an unfortunate necessity in a dangerous world and regarded with distrust. When the world looks less dangerous, the skepticism increases, often fueled by revelations of bungling, waste or excesses.
The post-9/11 combination of ballooning budgets, expanding technological abilities and near-total secrecy set up the intelligence agencies for an eventual collision with public opinion, in a repeat of a scandal-reform cycle from almost four decades ago.
Starting in 1975, the Senate committee led by Frank Church of Idaho produced no fewer than 14 volumes on intelligence abuses, detailing the C.I.A.'s assassination schemes, the F.B.I.'s harassment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the N.S.A.'s watch-listing of some 75,000 Americans. The C.I.A. director, Richard Helms, was convicted of lying to Congress.
The sweeping reforms that resulted included the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court approval for eavesdropping on American soil; a presidential ban on political assassination; and the creation of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to keep an eye on the agencies. In 1991, in response to the Iran-contra scandal, Congress tightened restrictions on covert action.
Those reforms rankled some advocates of national security, notably Dick Cheney, who as vice president used his powerful position to push the N.S.A. to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and strongly backed C.I.A. leaders when they decided to use methods long considered torture on Qaeda suspects.
Both programs continue to reverberate today. The N.S.A.'s aggressive warrantless surveillance, though reined in by legislation after it was exposed by The New York Times in 2005, included the phone data collection debated by the House on Wednesday. The decision to authorize brutal interrogation techniques is the subject of a 6,000-page report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee's Democratic staff; the report is likely to be partly declassified and made public in the next few months.
The report accuses the C.I.A. of misleading Congress, the Justice Department and even the administration of President George W. Bush about the interrogation program, which is now defunct. Some agency officials and Senate Republicans consider the report to be ill-informed second-guessing, but it will almost certainly come as another blow to the credibility of the spy agencies.
Until this year, the C.I.A.'s use of drones to kill terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen -- stepped up in part because detaining and questioning such suspects had proven so problematic -- had generated little public controversy. That changed early this year, as Congress debated the wisdom of targeted killing for the first time, notably in a 13-hour filibuster by Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who challenged the drone killings of Americans overseas.
At a time of partisan gridlock in Congress, the drone debate and now the surveillance debate were remarkable for the bipartisan coalitions that took shape on both sides. Libertarian Republicans, wary of government power and especially of the Obama administration, found common cause with liberal Democrats who have long complained of the intelligence agencies' secrecy and power. That coalition could be repeated in the Senate, where Mr. Paul has worked with two Democrats, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado.
Clearly the narrow vote would not be the last word. Representative Mike D. Rogers, Republican of Michigan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, promised lawmakers on Thursday that he would include new privacy safeguards in an intelligence policy bill he hopes to draft in September.
"That's where the action may well be," Mr. Udall said.
A subplot to all three of the counterterrorism programs that have come under such scrutiny is the role of leakers, or whistle-blowers as they prefer to be called, and the Obama administration's aggressive prosecution of them. C.I.A. interrogation methods and N.S.A. surveillance came to public light only because of leaks; the debate over the drone program was spurred in part by the leak of a Justice Department white paper on the killing of Americans.
Perhaps nothing captured the old American ambivalence about the secret corners of government like the scenes playing out on opposite sides of the globe this week. Members of Congress took turns criticizing and defending the N.S.A. programs they could not have mentioned in public at all before the illegal leaks of Mr. Snowden, still hiding out at Moscow's airport as Russian officials pondered whether to grant him temporary asylum.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.