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August 16, 2013 4:58 PM Watchdogs and Guard Dogs

By Ed Kilgore

On a day when WaPo is naturally absorbed with its own Snowden-assisted scoop on NSA violations of the guidelines under which they allegedly operate, Timothy Lee had the most compelling commentary there:

We now know that President Obama’s assurances that the NSA wasn’t “actually abusing” its surveillance programs are untrue. A leaked audit shows the NSA violated its own privacy rules, and in some cases the law, thousands of times over a one-year period.
A lot of people are assuming this means the president was lying — that he’s known about the scale of the NSA’s privacy problems all along and was trying to mislead the public. But there’s another possibility that could be even more troubling: He might not have known about the extent of the NSA’s privacy problems until this week.
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. We know that Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, only learned about the NSA privacy audit when The Washington Post asked her staff about it. And the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has admitted that the court has limited ability to police NSA misconduct.
Moreover, an internal NSA document Edward Snowden provided to The Washington Post advises NSA analysts that “while we do want to provide our FAA overseers with the information they need, we DO NOT want to give them any extraneous information.” The “overseers” are the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice. The NSA may not have been giving the full story to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence. And they, in turn, might have had reasons to keep some details about the extent of NSA abuses to themselves.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s precisely the lack of oversight of NSA that’s the most troubling feature of today’s disclosures. It’s not, at this point, all that clear that the privacy interests of U.S. citizens were significantly compromised by NSA’s violations. But it is clear that the watchdogs were wearing blinders, and when that happens, abuses far worse than what we’re hearing about now are eventually going to occur.

It’s not essential that the President of the United States know what every agency ostensibly under his direction is doing. It is essential that someone in the direct chain of command knows, who is accountable to the president, and even more essential that a special court set up to provide oversight isn’t working in the dark.

In the White House Bubble, I’m sure there is a temptation to look at today’s revelations as just another moment in a long-standing struggle involving intelligence agencies, the news media, Congress, and the political process, in which there are never true victories or defeats, just noise and smoke. But the president and his advisers need to get a handle on this issue and begin working towards, not just grudgingly accepting, the minimum steps needed to avoid rogue intelligence activities. Otherwise, before long, we’ll see the White House and intelligence agencies forced to accept by brute political force the presence of guard dogs rather than watchdogs, and then effective national security operations really may suffer.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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