Congressional Oversight of Covert Intelligence
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to the controversial program to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists in the US without getting warrants from a secret court set up for that purpose. President Bush says he reviews this activity every 45 days. Earlier this week, the president outlined another form of review.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: There's oversight. We're talking to Congress all the time, and on this program, to suggest there's unchecked power is not listening to what I'm telling you. I'm telling you, we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times.
MONTAGNE: As for how that oversight can be conducted when so much is secret, we turn to a Congressmen and former senator who've been briefed on the surveillance program. First, Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra from Michigan.
Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): I was appointed to be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee last year in August. And relatively quickly after that, I was called and notified that the folks at the White House wanted to have a meeting with me. They wouldn't disclose the topic, so I went over to the White House, had the meeting and was briefed on this program.
MONTAGNE: And what can you tell us about that meeting? Can you tell us who was present? What were you told?
Rep. HOEKSTRA: It was at the White House. It was with the highest level personnel from the executive branch, people there who could tell me exactly what was going on the program. They could tell me what safeguards were built into the program to make sure that there were no abuses or any illegalities going on. And then typically, as has happened in all of the briefings, they end up with basically two questions: Do you need any more information? And then do you have any concerns with the program moving forward?
MONTAGNE: Well, did you have other questions, or did you feel like you'd been fully briefed down to the last detail, knew what they were talking about?
Rep. HOEKSTRA: I felt that I'd received sufficient amount of data that I felt comfortable with the program, absolutely believing that it was essential to our national security and was a vital part in keeping America safe, been briefed again in the last couple of days by the attorney general. I continue to be confident that the program that we are engaged in meets the legal requirements that Congress has established and that the Constitution has laid out, yes.
MONTAGNE: Congressman, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller has released a letter he wrote to Vice President Cheney in July of 2003, that was a couple of years ago. And I'm looking at that letter that he's released to the public right now. To read you just a passage, `Given the security restrictions associated with this information and my inability to consult staff or counsel on my own, I feel'--now this is Senator Rockefeller--`I feel unable to fully evaluate much less endorse these activities.' Basically, he's saying he cannot conduct oversight, very different picture from this letter than from what you've just described to us.
Rep. HOEKSTRA: Well, number one, that was 2003. I became involved in the program in 2004. I can tell you that from my perspective, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that if I had concerns about this program or the impact that this program might have on the civil liberties of American citizens, I would not write just, you know, a letter to the vice president. I've got lots of tools at my disposal to stand up for the American people and...
MONTAGNE: But tell us one...
Rep. HOEKSTRA: ...should use those tools to do it.
MONTAGNE: Tell us one of those tools, though. What could you do with very secret information given to you at the highest levels?
Rep. HOEKSTRA: You could say, `I don't support this program, and I want it to stop,' very, very simply.
MONTAGNE: And if one wanted to say that, `I want this stopped,' how do you involve your colleagues or your constituents when what you want stopped is so secret?
Rep. HOEKSTRA: I would use every tool at my disposal, which would be going to the speaker of the House, it would be going to the vice president, it would be going to the president of the United States. But in this case, the only objection was one letter and, you know, now this gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands and, `Well, you know, I might have been concerned and expressed'--it's kind of like, `Excuse me, for four years, and you thought there were civil liberty concerns and you did very little or you did nothing?' Members of Congress have tremendous tools at their disposal to impact the executive branch.
Senator BOB GRAHAM (Democrat, Florida): Members of Congress are restricted in discussing this, including restricted in discussing it with their staff or other members of the committee.
MONTAGNE: Democrat Bob Graham of Florida chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee after 9/11. The former senator has a different take on the events. He attended a briefing on this sensitive program, as he recalls, either at the end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002.
Sen. GRAHAM: We met in the office of the vice president. In attendance were the chair and ranking member of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. My recollection of the meeting was focused on the issue of calls that were being monitored by the national security agencies outside the United States, being transferred through the United States. I left the room without any sense that it was going to be done extralegally, that is, outside of the legal structure of the federal intelligence security agency act.
MONTAGNE: You would have been in a role where part of your responsibility would have been oversight. Could you, under the circumstances, have exercised reasonable oversight on this program?
Sen. GRAHAM: We could have exercised reasonable oversight over the program that I've described because that was a program that was explained to us. But you can't have oversight over a program that has characteristics that have been withheld from you.
MONTAGNE: Now we've just spoken to Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and one of the arguments he made was in regards to this letter by Senator Rockefeller that, you know, one letter does not an objection make, that there were tools that any representative could have used if they had concerns about this program. Do you agree with that?
Sen. GRAHAM: Well, first you have to know about the program before you can object to the program. Second, this would have been a very surprising piece of information, that we were going to begin to avoid judicial permission to wiretap a telephone message or e-mail transmission, because that court had had a record of over 25 years of handling these kind of cases very well. It sounds to me as if at some point, the administration felt that it had sufficiently notified the Congress and had received either explicit or implicit approval of the program and were proceeding forward.
MONTAGNE: What should be next in your opinion for congressional oversight of this surveillance program? Are hearings in order? Are they proper and are they needed?
Sen. GRAHAM: They're in order, they're proper, and they're needed. I think we need to know, how long has this been going on? How many people have been wiretapped? What kind of information were we able to get through this process that we could not have gotten had we used the normal procedures?
MONTAGNE: That's former Democratic Senator Bob Graham. Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised hearings on the surveillance program next year. This is NPR News.
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