Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Devil's in the Details

After initially balking, the White House has relented, and provided additional details on the NSA domestic surveillance program to the Congress. For several weeks, members of the House and Senate have been pressing the administration for more information on program, but the White House rejected their requests, saying that Congress could not be trusted with highly classified national security information.

It's hard to resist the temptation to say that there's truth in that allegation. You may recall that Vermont's Patrick "Leaky" Leahy was actually forced to resign from the Senate intelligence committee in the 1980s for divulging classified information on several occasions. Former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ron "Red" Dellums held a Top Secret clearance for years, despite his refusal to sign non-disclosure agreements that come with access to secret information. has an excellent summary of past Democratic intelligence leaks and similar "failures." However, in fairness, I should point out that some Republicans have done the same thing, and every Administration plays the "leak" game from time to time. So a pox on all their houses, even if the Democrats seem to have the lead in the deliberate disclosure of classified information.

So how do we prevent this from happening again? As VP Cheney pointed out yesterday, by providing details to Congress, the number of people with detailed knowledge of the NSA program is going to increase substantially; 70 members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, plus hundreds of staffers that support those committees. That alone increases the chances for additional leaks, and disclosure of information that could further undermine the NSA effort.

Here's my suggestion for discouraging loose lips on Capitol Hill: from what I've been able to determine, the NSA effort falls into the SAR/SAP (Special Access Required/Special Access Program), which requires additional screening, monitoring and the signing of additional non-disclosure agreements. Anyone on the Hill involved in hearings or oversight on this issue must be read into the program, and held to the same security standards as NSA personnel and other staffers involved in the effort. And, just to keep everyone honest (and closed-mouth), everyone "read in" on the Hill will be subject to routine polygraph examination. Anyone caught leaking will be subject to criminal prosecution. And finally, any hearings or testimony on program must be conducted in a SAR/SAP briefing room, cleared for the program. If that means moving the proceedings to Fort Meade (NSA Headquarters), fine.

Implementing these requirements would have a number of positive impacts. First, it would eliminate some of the Congressional interlopers who only want a chance to grand-stand, or get some face time on TV. There are a number of Congressmen and Senators (Democrats and Republicans) who are serious about intelligence; oversight on this critical issue should be delegated only to members who understand the need for security, and are willing to abide by the rules governing highly classified programs. Secondly, the use of truly secure facilities provides another measure of protection, and makes it tougher to leak information to reporters trolling the hallways of Capitol Hill.

When the hearings are complete, responsible members of Congress can release their final report, with proper safeguards to protect the most sensitive elements of the program. If members of the media want an exclusive, they can get pursue the story--with the caveat that the leaker and reporter are subject to prosecution. I'd suggest post-hearing polygraphs for everyone on the Hill connected with this effort, just to ensure that all participants played by the rules. Access to information does not give anyone--even a member of Congress--the right to blab it to The New York Times.

As we've noted before, some secret are necessary in a democracy, and our willingness to protect those secrets are a measure of how much we value our freedoms. No one would deny Congress its right to conduct intelligence oversight, but we should hold representatives, senators and their staffers to the same, exacting standards when it comes to protecting highly classified programs. Sadly, I don't see the Bush Administration making those demands from Congress, and leaks about the NSA program will likely continue.

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