In wake of Snowden’s disclosure, administration must stop obfuscating
The political fallout from Edward Snowden’s disclosure of a super-secret, super-massive government spying program continues to widen this week, as leaders on both the right and left expanded their criticism of high-ranking Obama administration officials for misleading Congress about the nature and scope of the National Security Administration’s spy program in the months before Snowden blew the whistle.
With new and startling details about the domestic data-warehousing program finding their way into the newspaper every day, Congress and the press are closely reviewing old testimony from senior Obama types to determine whether the statements square with the truth as we have come to know it post-Snowden.
The results of this ex post facto check are unnerving. For years, the Obama administration systematically duped and deceived the public about virtually all aspects of its domestic spy program — in private, in public, under oath.
According to a report in the Washington Post Thursday, “… lawmakers say they feel that many of the administration’s public statements — often couched in terms that offered assurances of the government’s respect for civil liberties and privacy — seemed designed to mislead Americans and avoid congressional scrutiny.”
At issue are at least three pre-Snowden public exchanges and numerous classified briefings to high-ranking congressional officials, in which the administration described domestic spy programs as being narrowly focused, case-by-case inquiries, constrained by well-established privacy side rails that would prevent the kind of wide-ranging fishing expedition we now know the NSA program to be.
To the extent that the nation’s intelligence apparatus was trolling for and storing metadata in emails and cell phone records, administration officials repeatedly told Congress pre-Snowden that such trolling was a highly targeted exercise, limited by a latticework of checks and balances.
But now we know these statements from high-level Obama officials to be, at best, elusive in the extreme, and, at worst, perjurious poppycock.
Far from a deliberative, case-by-case, privacy-sensitive process, the program is the equivalent of the mother of all fishing expeditions.
As one digital privacy group put it, “The NSA is intercepting and analyzing millions of ordinary Americans’ communications, with the help of the country’s largest phone and Internet companies.”
Constrained and case-by-case, this program is not. And neither is it constitutional.
The most important question facing policymakers, of course, is what to do about the program.
But an important corollary in this Orwellian saga is what to do about repeated misleading statements by senior administration officials.
How can Congress have a sensible debate about the proper boundaries between security and privacy if policymakers can’t ascertain authentic information about relevant programs?
More pointedly, how can our system of separation of powers work if the executive branch of government can deceive Congress on the most critical matters of state without ramification?
In the last two weeks, Republicans and Democrats have started piling onto the administration for its unwillingness to tell the truth.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was tough. “These statements gave the public a false impression of how these authorities were actually being interpreted.”
Congressman Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., was harsh. “If the administration has a policy to lie to Congress about classified materials in unclassified hearings, then you have to ask yourself what value the hearings have and whether or not anyone else is doing it.”
Congressman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., was spot-on. “The national security state has grown so that any administration is now not upfront with Congress. It’s an imbalance that’s grown in our government, and one that we have to cleanse.”
Our own Sen. Mark Udall has been a fierce critic of the program, too.
But will this tough talk serve any real purpose?
Will these leaders aggressively work to enact bills that limit the scope of the NSA’s spy program, or will they merely introduce bills and issue press releases? Will critics of the spy program demand accountability from those in the Obama administration?
Heads should roll in the administration. Sen. Udall and others should demand it.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He graduated from Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.