Oversight of the National Security Agency

Mr. Speaker, in December 2005, we learned that the Bush administration was using the National Security Agency, the NSA, to eavesdrop on Americans on U.S. soil without a warrant or judicial oversight, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Over a year later, Congress has yet to address this issue, and the NSA's secret surveillance program has continued unabated. Just last week the administration continued its unilateral approach, announcing that notwithstanding its protestations last year, that it could not possibly allow the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee the NSA program; it would now submit to the court's jurisdiction, but not tell the Congress how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would oversee the program or why its policies have changed.

When Members of Congress questioned the Attorney General and the National Intelligence Director regarding this shift in policy, both officials refused to provide information regarding the nature of the administration's new policy in this area.

Indeed, we have no idea whether the administration is now seeking warrants on an individualized basis or broad programmatic approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Congressional silence in this area and others has had other repercussions. Earlier this month Congress was again caught by surprise when we learned that the President has claimed potentially sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a court warrant.

Again, the administration could obtain a warrant, and quickly, from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge, but has chosen not to submit this effort to court supervision. Interestingly, the developments over the last year bear a striking resemblance to events that occurred some 30 years ago, when a series of troubling reports

began appearing in the press concerning domestic intelligence activities and surveillance of political activities of U.S. citizens.

These revelations and others revealed by the Watergate scandal convinced lawmakers that Congress had been too permissive and trusting, failing to carry out its oversight responsibilities over the executive branch.

In response, a U.S. Senate committee was formed to investigate intelligence activities by the government. The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, commonly referred to as the Church committee, after its Senate chairman, issued more than 50,000 pages of reports in what is considered the most comprehensive review of intelligence activities in the country.

Ironically, the reports included sections on mail opening as well as the National Security Agency and fourth amendment rights. In rebuffing recent congressional requests for information on the current NSA program, the administration has made the argument that the NSA surveillance program is too sensitive to be shared with Congress, even to Members in the classified setting.

When these same concerns were weighed by the Church committee in 1975, the opposite result was reached, with the committee refusing to neglect its oversight responsibility merely because their work would be harder. In fact, the extensive oversight and the substantial record generated by the Church committee inspired the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Both have worked effectively to ensure that the President has the tools necessary to thwart attacks while ensuring respect for the civil liberties of Americans and the adherence to the rule of law. FISA, as it is called, has provided a measure of oversight over foreign intelligence activities on U.S. soil, and with it the confidence of the American people.

This administration, however, has undermined that trust by circumventing FISA. Congress should follow the example of the Church committee, by vigorously examining the NSA surveillance program and determining what legislative action is necessary. The administration should cooperate and work with Congress as we engage in our oversight responsibilities, and make the case for statutory change if revisions are required to meet new challenges in the war on terror.

If, however, the administration rejects congressional oversight in this area and continues to defy requests for information, Congress should seek other means of redress. I have introduced bipartisan legislation with Representative JEFF FLAKE that can serve as a basis for examining these issues and restoring the rule of law.

The NSA Oversight Act, H.R. 11, would reiterate existing law requiring court approval for the surveillance of Americans on American soil, and would provide greater oversight of NSA's surveillance activity. Our legislation also makes some key changes to FISA in order to streamline and expedite the process in response to the administration's argument that the current framework was too cumbersome.

Mr. Speaker, I urge the Congress to fully examine this issue, step up its oversight responsibility, and take legislative action if necessary.