STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Security Agency faces unprecedented scrutiny since the revelations by Edward Snowden. His backers argue he performed a public service. His critics say there is a regular process for examining spy agencies that is not supposed to involve leaking secrets.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This morning we'll report on that regular process. Congress is supposed to oversee spy agencies. That's their job.
INSKEEP: But the job is not easy when the agencies control the secrets. NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: There's a room at the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland where visitors get briefed on what the spy agency is all about. A large sign on the wall reads, in big letters, fully committed to protecting the privacy rights of the American people. Bill Combs, a briefer for the NSA, assured me during a recent visit there that the agency welcomes oversight.
BILL COMBS: Everything is vetted left and right. The courts look at everything we do - the General Counsel, the Department of Justice - we have watchdogs everywhere. And we're glad to have them.
WELNA: Including, he said, Congress. That's not the attitude Thomas Drake recalls the NSA having. Drake worked at the agency and ended up a whistleblower. The year was 2002 and Drake says the NSA had set up its own war room to respond to requests for information from Congress.
THOMAS DRAKE: And the joke that went around NSA was who are we at war with, right, the terrorists or Congress? It was clear that the priority by NSA leadership was we're at war with Congress. We're not going to let them know what the truth is. NSA had a lot to hide.
WELNA: That was a dozen years ago. At the time, the agency was carrying out a secret program that eavesdropped on Americans without a warrant on orders from then-President Bush. Lawmakers today are kept much more in the loop than they were then. North Carolina Republican Richard Burr is on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
SENATOR RICHARD BURR: I don't know that in recent history we've had any problems with the information that's been shared with the committees. Typically, the problem is when information's that meant to stay secret becomes public.
WELNA: Such as when Edward Snowden disclosed last year that the NSA was collecting and storing the phone records of millions of Americans. The week that story broke, House Speaker John Boehner denounced Snowden as a traitor. Boehner said the NSA's spying had been fully approved by Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE JOHN BOEHNER: I have been briefed on all of these programs. There's no American who's going to be snooped on in anyway unless they are in contact with some terrorists somewhere around the world.
WELNA: Boehner and other members of Congress may have been briefed on those programs, but simply knowing about them is a long way from having a public debate on their merits and drawbacks. And that's the conundrum about overseeing classified programs. Things you learn behind closed doors don't always square with the official line in public.
SENATOR RON WYDEN: Again and again the leadership of the intelligence community has said one thing in public and done quite another in private.
WELNA: That's Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. He, too, is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wyden knew the NSA was using a secret legal interpretation to scoop up Americans' personal data without a warrant. But the program was classified. And he says that severely limited what he could say about it publicly.
WYDEN: It, in my view, was really impossible for me to carry out my duties. And so for months and months, I tried to engage with Director Clapper to get some straight answers about these statements that were made in public.
WELNA: Director Clapper is James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. Wyden got his chance to question the nation's top spy at a hearing in March of last year. Their exchange has since become something of a watershed in the debate over secrecy.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
WYDEN: If you could give me a yes or no answer to the question does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
JAMES CLAPPER: No, sir.
WYDEN: It does not?
CLAPPER: Not wittingly.
WELNA: Wyden knew that was not the correct answer. He could not say anything at the time, though, because the program was still secret. It wasn't until three months later, once Snowden's revelations about the NSA went public, that Clapper said the answer he'd given Wyden was "the least untruthful he could have made about the secret program." Later, he wrote Congress saying his answer had been "clearly erroneous." The episode points to another problem over senior intelligence activities. Officials must be taken at their word. Again, Ron Wyden.
WYDEN: You cannot have good oversight by the Congress if the Congress can't get straight answers from the intelligence leadership. And the reality is again and again over the last few years, that has not been possible.
WELNA: That view is not shared by everyone charged with overseeing the NSA. Dianne Feinstein is also a Democrat and she chairs the Senate intelligence panel.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: We don't rely on their self-reporting. We ask the questions. They come before us and we ask the questions.
WELNA: Do you ever feel like you've been misled by the answers?
FEINSTEIN: No, I do not.
WELNA: Nor does Saxby Chambliss, the Senate intelligence panel's top Republican.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: When you look at the experience on the committee, we know where the bodies are buried. And we call the right folks in from time to time to try to make sure that we're looking at all of our programs in the right way.
WELNA: But Chambliss also acknowledges that the committee's lack of resources means it has to be selective.
CHAMBLISS: To say that we're able to look into every single one of the programs that the intelligence community operates on a day to day basis - we can't. I mean, we don't have the manpower to do that.
WELNA: Congressional overseers have not only been stymied by the intelligence agencies, they've also been problems with other members of Congress. Senator Feinstein says there's resistance among some lawmakers to moves such as holding more public hearings or debating the intelligence budget openly. Change, Feinstein says, does not come easily.
FEINSTEIN: I think it's hard to advance transparency. Even for our members it's hard to advance transparency because the system itself tries to avoid transparency.
WELNA: Indeed, it was only the public outrage that followed Edward Snowden's revelations that finally swayed Congress to take a second look at the phone data collection program. Last month, the House approved legislation that would rein in that practice. On the day it passed, Speaker Boehner endorsed the reform of the very program he had defended a year earlier.
BOEHNER: When you look at this NSA reform bill, people are a lot more comfortable that the government is not storing all of this metadata that we were.
WELNA: The truth about what the intelligence agencies are really up to, says Senator Wyden, eventually does come out. But he says in the NSA's case, it took too long.
WYDEN: This is a debate that should not have been started by someone who is a contractor. This should have been a debate that started with the American people.
WELNA: The problem is the American people did not know what their elected representatives knew about what was going on at the NSA. And those representatives cannot be sure even they know all they should. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.