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Did CIA Violate the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause?

The Central Intelligence Agency may have violated the Speech or Debate clause of the U.S. Constitution by performing an unauthorized search of Senate Intelligence Committee computers, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

The Speech or Debate clause (in Article I, Section 6, Clause 1 of the Constitution) generally immunizes members of Congress from liability for actions performed in the course of their legislative duties.

But it also provides privileged protection for congressional documents against compulsory or involuntary disclosure. CIA may have unconstitutionally violated that privilege.

As detailed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a March 11 floor statement, the CIA carried out a search of Committee computers without notice or consent in an attempt to determine whether or how the Committee had obtained unauthorized access to a particular record concerning the CIA’s post-9/11 prisoner interrogation program.

“The search involved not only a search of documents provided by the committee to the CIA but also a search of the stand-alone and walled-off committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications,” Sen. Feinstein said. The search took place in a CIA-leased facility where Committee staff were working.

“According to [CIA Director] Brennan, the computer search was conducted in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the internal Panetta review [a CIA document which CIA had not intended to release to the Committee]. The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal Panetta review or how we obtained it.”

“Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Sen. Feinstein said.

Through the Speech or Debate clause, the Constitution “has imposed [limitations] on executive branch attempts to interfere with legislative activities, including Congress’s authority to conduct oversight and investigations,” the new CRS analysis explained.

The Speech or Debate clause has been interpreted variously by two appellate courts, with different implications for the current circumstance, CRS said. The CIA search of Senate Intelligence Committee computers “could arguably be viewed as violating the non-disclosure privilege recognized by the court in Rayburn,” CRS said, referring to a 2007 DC Circuit case involving an FBI search of the House office of Rep. William Jefferson.

However, under a different reading of the Speech or Debate clause from a Ninth Circuit opinion in a case called US v. Renzi, the potential CIA violation “is less clear,” the CRS memorandum cautioned.

See Who’s Overseeing Whom? The CIA, SSCI and the Speech or Debate Clause, CRS Legal Sidebar, March 13, 2014.

In any event, the possible violation by the CIA of the non-disclosure privilege provided by the Speech or Debate clause is not legally actionable at this time, CRS said.  Rather, it “would only come into play in the event of a subsequent legal proceeding.”

On Friday, CIA Director John Brennan sent an email message to CIA employees containing what was understood to be a conciliatory signal towards Congress. “It is appropriate for the Intelligence Committees in the Senate and the House to carry out their oversight responsibilities thoroughly and comprehensively, and CIA needs to do all it can to assist the Committees in that regard,” Director Brennan wrote.

“Regarding the SSCI’s RDI [rendition, detention and interrogation] report, I want to assure you that the entire CIA leadership team is committed to addressing any outstanding questions or requests from SSCI members so that the Committee can complete its work and finalize the report as soon as possible.”

“I expect the Committee will submit at least some portion of the report to the CIA for classification review, and, if that happens, CIA will carry out the review expeditiously,” he wrote in the March 21 email message (published by Politico).

Some Legislators Seek More Intelligence Budget Disclosure

Now that annual disclosure of the intelligence budget total has become routine, some legislators are seeking more transparency on intelligence spending.

As anticipated, the requested U.S. intelligence budget for Fiscal Year 2015 that was submitted to Congress this week fell below the current year’s level and continued a decline from the post-9/11 high that it reached in FY 2010.

The “base” funding request for the National Intelligence Program (NIP) for FY 2015 was $45.6 billion, while the base funding request for the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) was $13.3 billion. (“Base” funding does not include funding for “overseas contingency operations,” which is to be requested later in the year.)

By comparison, the base funding request for the NIP in FY 2014 was $48.2 billion, and the base funding request for the MIP was $14.6 billion. Additional data on intelligence budget appropriations can be found here.

An unclassified summary of the FY 2015 National Intelligence Program budget request (that was included in the overall budget request) implied that the publication of the request was a voluntary act of transparency.

“Reflecting the Administration’s commitment to transparency and open government, the Budget continues the practice begun in the 2012 Budget of disclosing the President’s aggregate funding request for the NIP,” the summary said.

In fact, however, the publication of the NIP budget request is required by law, since it was included in the FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Public Law 111-259, section 601). An ODNI news release on the budget request correctly cited the legal requirement to publicly disclose the budget request figure.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding legal requirement for the Department of Defense to publish the budget request for the Military Intelligence Program. But DoD has done so voluntarily since 2012, a move that represents a genuine reduction in official secrecy by the Obama Administration.

Even so, dozens of Congressmen say that there is still too much secrecy in intelligence spending. The Intelligence Budget Transparency Act of 2014 (HR 3855), introduced by Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-WY), would require disclosure of the total budget of each of the individual 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

“Writing checks without any idea of where the money is going is bad policy,” said Rep. Lummis in a January 14, 2014 release. “Disclosing the top-line budgets of each of our intelligence agencies promotes basic accountability among the agencies charged with protecting Americans without compromising our national security interests.”

“The top-line intelligence budgets for America’s 16 intelligence agencies are unknown to the American taxpayer and largely unknown to the Members of Congress who represent them,” added Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s led to dubious policies, wasted money and questionable effectiveness. Requiring the public disclosure of top-line intelligence spending is an essential first step in assuring that our taxpayers and our national security interests are well served.”

Interestingly, the bill’s 59 congressional co-sponsors include a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Republican legislators have not previously been known to favor disclosure of individual agency intelligence budgets, with the exception of the late Sen. Arlen Specter, a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who once advocated release of the NRO budget total.

A February 12 letter to President Obama asking him to release the individual agency budget figures was signed by 62 members of Congress.

Many of the classified portions of the new Department of Defense budget request were tabulated in “Read the Pentagon’s $59 Billion ‘Black Budget’” by Brandy Zadrozny, The Daily Beast, March 6.

Disclosure of FISA Court Opinions: Legal Issues (CRS)

Could Congress legally compel the executive branch to disclose classified opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?  Maybe not, a new analysis from the Congressional Research Service concludes.

The CRS report — entitled “Disclosure of FISA Court Opinions: Select Legal Issues” — has little to do with FISA Court opinions in particular. It is an analysis of the overlapping authorities of the three branches of government to classify or disclose national security information.

“The central issue is the extent to which Congress may regulate control over access to national security information, including mandating that the executive branch disclose specific materials — a question not definitively resolved by the courts,” the report says.

This is not a new question, but it is usefully reviewed and summarized by the CRS report.

The issue arises because “The executive branch has argued that the Commander-in-Chief clause bestows the President with independent power to control access to national security information. As such, according to this line of reasoning, Congress’s generally broad ability to require disclosure of agency documents may be constrained when it implicates national security.”

Although no statute regulating classification has ever been ruled unconstitutional, “Congress’s power to compel the release of information held by the executive branch might have limits,” CRS said. “There may be a limited sphere of information that courts will protect from public disclosure,” just as they have exempted properly classified information in FOIA cases, and state secrets in other cases.

The unsurprising bottom line is that “proposals that allow the executive branch to first redact information from FISA opinions before public release appear to be on firm constitutional ground.” However, the CRS report said, “a proposal that mandated all past FISA opinions be released in their entirety — without any redactions by the executive branch — might raise a separation of powers issue.”

All of this may seem academic and politically inapt since there are no active proposals in Congress to compel public release of FISA court opinions that are completely unreviewed or unredacted.

In fact, Congress has arguably been derelict in failing to press more assertively for release of legal rulings of the FISA court, and for disclosure of the general contours of the telephony bulk collection program. Had Congress forcefully required the publication of such information, much of the angst and turmoil of the past nine months that resulted from the Snowden disclosures might have been avoided.

The new CRS report has a couple of other noteworthy omissions.

It does not mention the authority claimed by the congressional intelligence committees to publicly disclose classified information without executive branch approval. (See Section 8 of Senate Resolution 400 of the 94th Congress, 1976.)  Though this authority has never yet been exercised, it remains available in principle.

The report also does not mention some recent instances when Congress has successfully compelled executive branch declassification while also navigating around potential constitutional obstacles.

So, for example, the Senate Intelligence Committee enacted a requirement in the FY 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act (Section 601) that the executive branch must disclose the annual budget request for the National Intelligence Program when the annual budget is submitted. Previously, the intelligence budget request had always been classified information. To save constitutional appearances and assuage the concerns of executive branch lawyers, the Act did include a provision for the President to waive the requirement on national security grounds — but he has never yet done so.

Last week, the Electronic Privacy and Information Center obtained copies of declassified Justice Department reports on the use of pen registers and trap and trace devices under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from 2000 to 2013.

McCain Proposes New Select Committee on NSA Leaks

A resolution introduced yesterday by Sen. John McCain would establish a new Senate Select Committee to investigate the unauthorized disclosures of classified information on National Security Agency collection programs and their implications for national policy.

The McCain resolution is framed broadly and touches on many issues besides leaks, including intelligence policy, congressional oversight, the role of contractors, the constitutionality of current intelligence programs, and more.

The resolution asserts that “senior officials in the intelligence community may have misled Congress or otherwise obfuscated the nature, extent, or use of certain intelligence-collection programs, operations, and activities of the National Security Agency, including intelligence-collection programs affecting Americans.”

“[T]he provision of incomplete or inaccurate information by officials of the intelligence community has inhibited effective congressional oversight of certain intelligence-collection programs, operations, and activities of the National Security Agency, including intelligence-collection programs affecting Americans, and undermined congressional and public support of these programs,” the resolution stated.

Moreover, “some such programs, operations, and activities that are the subject matter of the unauthorized disclosures may not have been authorized, or may have exceeded that which was authorized, by law, or may not have been permitted under the Constitution of the United States.”

The proposed new select committee would investigate the unauthorized disclosures and assess how they occurred, the damage to U.S. national security that resulted, and how such damage could be mitigated.

The committee would review the role of intelligence contractors and the adequacy of current management controls.

The committee would evaluate the legality, constitutionality, and efficacy of the NSA collection programs that have been disclosed.

It would also consider “the need for greater transparency and more effective congressional oversight of intelligence community activities,” and whether existing laws are sufficient “to safeguard the rights and privacies of citizens of the United States.”

In proposing a new select committee, Senator McCain is implicitly declaring that existing oversight procedures are inadequate, and that a new, more fundamental approach is required. The prospects for the McCain proposal to become a reality are uncertain.

DNI Clapper: Transparency is the Way Forward

The primary lesson that emerges from the unauthorized disclosures of classified intelligence information by Edward Snowden is that U.S. intelligence agencies must be more transparent in their operations, said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper yesterday.

“The major takeaway for us, certainly for me, from the past several months is that we must lean in the direction of transparency, wherever and whenever we can,” DNI Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“With greater transparency about these intelligence programs the American people may be more likely to accept them,” he said, promising “further declassification.”

Another possibility, he acknowledged, is that even with greater transparency the American people will choose not to accept certain kinds of intelligence programs.

“If dealing with reduced capacities is what we need to ensure the faith and confidence of the American people and their elected representatives, then we in the intelligence community will work as hard as we can to meet the expectations before us,” DNI Clapper said.

Already, the Snowden disclosures have caused “profound damage” to U.S. intelligence, the DNI said.

“What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs. As a result, we’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners.”

“Snowden claims that he’s won and that his mission is accomplished. If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to U.S. security,” the DNI said.

The use of the word “accomplices” appeared to suggest that the DNI views the journalists who possess and report on the Snowden documents as Snowden’s partners in crime, and even as criminals themselves.

“Is it now the official view of the Obama administration that these journalists and media outlets are ‘accomplices’ in what they regard as Snowden’s crimes? If so, that is a rather stunning and extremist statement,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, who first reported on the Snowden releases last June.

But though it has never yet figured in an actual prosecution, the issue of criminal liability for journalists in this area is embedded in the law.

It’s true that there is no general legal prohibition on publication of classified information. (Congress passed such a statute in 2000, but President Clinton vetoed it.)

But there is a clear and specific prohibition on the willful disclosure of classified communications intelligence information. And that prohibition, in 18 U.S.C. 798, extends also to anyone who “publishes” such information.

What is “stunning,” or at least noteworthy, is that the Obama Administration has apparently made a strategic decision not to attempt to enforce this provision of the law against publishers of the Snowden documents. (It was invoked against Snowden himself as one of the three counts in a June 14, 2013 criminal complaint.)

It seems that even what the DNI called “the most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history by Edward Snowden and the ensuing avalanche of revelations published and broadcast around the world” is not sufficient to trigger the use of the criminal statute against publishers of classified communications intelligence. So that provision is effectively a dead letter, even if it still finds a faint echo in the DNI’s testimony before Congress.

GAO to Issue Report on Intelligence Contractors

The Government Accountability Office will issue a long-awaited report on intelligence community contractors in the next few weeks, a congressional official said.

The GAO report is an unclassified version of a classified assessment that was completed last year.  According to a statement of work obtained by Secrecy News in 2012, the GAO project was to address the following issues:

“(1) To what extent do civilian intelligence agencies rely on and strategically review their reliance on contractors to perform critical professional and management support services? (2) To what extent do these agencies have policies and guidance that address the use of contractors for these services? (3) What steps have these agencies taken to manage the risks associated with using contractors for these services? (4) To what extent have these agencies addressed challenges with retaining federal personnel?”

The new contractor study is not the only GAO activity related to intelligence; it is one of “several, maybe half a dozen” GAO projects that are underway. By its nature, GAO tends not to deal with intelligence operations, or with sources and methods, the congressional official said. Rather, it is mainly concerned with workforce management, human capital, and similar issues in which it has particular expertise.

The official said that GAO now has a “constructive” relationship with intelligence agencies, particularly after the adoption in 2011 of Intelligence Community Directive 114, which established a common understanding of GAO’s role and authorities.

“We’re on the right path,” the official said. “There are occasional bumps in the road, but you deal with the bumps.”

A new appreciation for the potential utility of GAO audits and investigations of intelligence agency performance seems to be developing.

Multiple bills have been introduced in the current Congress that would employ GAO in congressional oversight of intelligence.

Rep. Rush Holt’s “Surveillance State Repeal Act” (HR 2818) would require the GAO to evaluate government compliance with foreign intelligence law.

The “NSA Accountability Act” (HR 3882) introduced by Rep. John Carney would require GAO to analyze the effectiveness of NSA programs, to report on the conduct of surveillance programs, and to describe any violations of law.

Another bill (HR 3900) introduced just last week by Rep. Michael McCaul is intended to facilitate GAO access to information in the intelligence community.

Sen. McCain Blasts Secret Legislation on Drone Policy

In a striking new example of secret lawmaking, a classified provision in the consolidated appropriations bill passed by Congress last week prohibited the transfer of CIA drone operations to the Department of Defense.

“This is outrageous,” said Sen. John McCain of the secret legislative move, “and it should not have happened.”

The secret provision was first reported in the Washington Post. “The provision represents an unusually direct intervention by lawmakers into the way covert operations are run, impeding an administration plan aimed at returning the CIA’s focus to traditional intelligence gathering and possibly bringing more transparency to drone strikes,” wrote Greg Miller in the Post. (“Lawmakers seek to stymie plan to shift control of drone campaign from CIA to Pentagon,” January 15.)

The term “secret law” is most often used to refer to executive branch actions that mandate national policy without public notice, or that reinterpret existing statutes in dubious or counterintuitive ways that are not disclosed to the public.  But in this case, an important national policy measure was literally written into law by Congress in secret.

In his January 16 floor statement, Sen. McCain had this to say:

“…Tucked away in the classified portion of this bill is a policy rider that has serious national security implications and is a prime example of the appropriators overstepping their bounds. This provision will halt the transfer of the U.S. drone counterterrorism operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense. In doing so, it summarily changes a very important policy that guides how we do certain counterterrorism operations abroad from a direction that the President has specifically prescribed. And how did most of us become aware of this major policy change? By reading this morning’s Washington Post; that is how.”

“This is outrageous, and it should not have happened. While there may be differing opinions on who should control drone counterterrorism operations, we should be able to debate these differences in the committees of jurisdiction and eventually on the Senate floor. The fact that a major national security policy decision is going to be authorized in this bill without debate or authorization is unacceptable and should not be the way we legislate on such important national security issues.”

But it is the way that this Congress legislates. And though Senator McCain voted against the measure, the full Senate approved it, 72-26, and the President signed it into law on January 17.

Senate Benghazi Report Urges Better Open Source Analysis

The U.S. intelligence community needs to expand the collection and analysis of open source information, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

But that recommendation ironically comes just as the CIA has terminated public and scholarly access to its open source collection of foreign news reports.

“The IC must place a greater emphasis on collecting intelligence and open-source information, including extremist-affiliated social media, to improve its ability to provide tactical warnings, especially in North Africa, the Middle East, and other areas where the U.S. has facilities under high threat,” the new report said (p. 25).

“The IC should expand its capabilities to conduct analysis of open source information including extremist-affiliated social media particularly in areas where it is hard to develop human intelligence or there has been recent political upheaval,” the report said.

In the past, public consumers of CIA open source reporting were able to provide a measure of analytic support as well as area expertise to policy makers.

Such public consumers contributed to “expanded participation in informed analysis of issues significant to U.S. policy interests,” said the CIA’s J. Niles Riddel in 1992.  Back then, intelligence agencies “value[d] the work of private sector scholars and analysts who avail themselves of our material and contribute significantly to the national debate on contemporary issues such as economic competitiveness.”

But today’s CIA decided to cut off public and scholarly access to such material through the World News Connection, to the detriment of the “informed analysis” that public consumers might have contributed to the national debate.

The entire archive of the former World News Connection from 1995-2013 has been acquired by East View Information Services. For a subscription fee, “Researchers will still have access to over 1 million foreign newspaper articles, broadcast transcripts and datelines from Beijing, Beirut, Bogota, Cairo, Jakarta, Iraq, Mogadishu, Qatar, Ramallah, Sarajevo, Vienna, and hundreds of other spots around the world.”

GAO Oversight of NSA: A Neglected Option

Years ago, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, conducted routine audits and investigations of the National Security Agency, such that the two agencies were in “nearly continuous contact” with one another. In the post-Snowden era, GAO could perform that oversight function once again.

“NSA advises that the GAO maintains a team permanently in residence at NSA, resulting in nearly continuous contact between the two organizations,” according to a 1994 CIA memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence.

“NSA’s practice has been to cooperate with GAO audits and investigations to the extent possible in accordance with DOD regulations,” the CIA memorandum said. “This includes providing the GAO with documents requested, including CCP CBJB’s [congressional budget justification books for the consolidated cryptologic program] as long as (1) the request was in support of a valid audit or investigation and (2) the recipients of the classified material had the requisite accesses and could meet security requirements for classified data control and storage. Documents provided in the past have included CCP CBJBs.”

At a 2008 Senate hearing, Sen. Daniel Akaka asked the GAO about its relationship with NSA. “I understand that GAO even had an office at the NSA,” Sen. Akaka noted.

“We still actually do have space at the NSA,” replied David M. Walker, then-Comptroller General, the head of the GAO. “We just don’t use it. And the reason we don’t use it is we are not getting any requests [from Congress]. So I do not want to have people sitting out there twiddling their thumbs.”

Today, the justification for restoring the type of on-site, investigative oversight of NSA that GAO could provide may be newly apparent– though no one seems to have noticed that GAO could actually provide it.

The recent report of the the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies includes an appendix citing the various components of oversight of U.S. intelligence, but it does not mention GAO at all.

Whether NSA bulk collection programs are ultimately extended, modified, or terminated, GAO could play a useful role as the eyes and ears of Congress at NSA. While there are several other oversight mechanisms in place, GAO would bring some unique features to the mix.

NSA has a fairly robust Office of the Director of Compliance to perform internal oversight, but it answers to the NSA Director, and reflects his priorities, not necessarily those of Congress.  Inspector general oversight focuses on compliance with the letter of the law, and it is probably less well-suited than GAO to consider systemic problems, performance issues and policy alternatives.  (Last November, the IC Inspector General deflected a request from Senator Leahy to conduct oversight of NSA surveillance programs, citing resource limitations and other issues.)

If it were directed to conduct audits and investigations on behalf of Congress, there is reason to believe the GAO could add a valuable dimension to NSA oversight. Just as a proposed third-party advocate might “thicken” the deliberations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court concerning surveillance law, so too might GAO investigators enrich the oversight of NSA programs as they are executed in practice.

In Intelligence Community Directive 114, issued in 2011 following years of stagnation in GAO oversight of intelligence, DNI James Clapper instructed U.S. intelligence agencies to be responsive to GAO, at least within certain boundaries.

“It is IC policy to cooperate with the Comptroller General, through the GAO, to the fullest extent possible, and to provide timely responses to requests for information,” the DNI wrote.

DoD Reports to Congress to be Posted Online

In a slight but welcome incremental reform, reports to Congress from the Department of Defense are to be posted online, according to a provision in the pending FY 2014 defense authorization act.

Up to now, such reports were to be made available to the public “upon request” (10 USC 122a). But under section 181 of the FY 2014 defense authorization bill, as agreed to by House and Senate conferees, the reports would have to be posted on a “publicly accessible Internet website” whether they were requested or not (h/t: FCNL).

The online publication requirement would not apply to DoD reports that contained classified or proprietary information, or that are otherwise exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

In a January 21, 2009 memorandum to agency heads, the newly inaugurated President Obama directed that “agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.” But agencies implemented this directive unevenly and incompletely.