Despite claims by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that they are barred from publicly exposing dragnet surveillance practices at the National Security Agency, a closer look at Senate rules shows that the group actually has it in their power to actively push for greater transparency. They have just opted not to use that power.
According to a new report by McClatchy, "buried in the pages" of the founding document of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senate Resolution 400, is a provision that allows the committee to "seek the declassification of information that he or she thinks is of public interest, even if the executive branch labels the material top secret," by way of a majority committee vote.
Congress has proved unwilling to openly question the intelligence agencies’ claims that something must remain secret.
As McClatchy reports, according to the rule, if a majority vote is reached and the executive branch still refuses to allow the declassification of materials for public knowledge, the issue can be taken to the Senate floor for another vote.
“The select committee may, subject to the provisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such disclosure,” Section 8 of the document reads.
In all the years since the committee was formed in 1976, Section 8 has never been enacted. As McClatchy notes:
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The committee’s failure to make use of the provision even once, critics say, underscores a problem with congressional oversight: Congress has proved unwilling to openly question the intelligence agencies’ claims that something must remain secret.
This finding runs counter to claims by committee members such as NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who along with fellow committee member Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has continuously offered "veiled concerns" that the U.S. public would be "stunned and angry" if only the committee could reveal the NSA's activities to them.
Wyden and Udall have praised whistleblower Edward Snowden and have publicly pushed for NSA transparency but have repeatedly said that he they are barred from revealing details of classified NSA practices as committee members.
Subsequently, Wyden told McClatchy that he didn’t know the provision existed, as did fellow Intelligence Committee member Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
It remains to be seen if, upon knowledge of this rule, NSA critics on the committee such as Wyden and Udall will take action to push harder for declassification.
Other Senate Intelligence Committee members have openly supported the NSA's unchecked surveillance such as committee chairperson Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.