Maybe it’s the heat. Or maybe it’s them wanting to get it all out of their systems before the August recess. But whatever the case, there are some genuinely angry politicians in Washington right now, trying to figure who they should yell at next for making them deal with the fallout from the leaks perpetrated by Edward Snowden.
Thus far, the list of yell-ees is long and distinguished, to include Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA; James Cole, deputy attorney general; John Inglis, deputy director of the NSA; Robert Litt of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; and various and sundry FBI officials. Committees from both houses of Congress have been taking turns kicking and screaming at the officials at the top of the law enforcement and intelligence communities for the better part of a month now, evincing various levels of indignation and outrage at the way that these people have used the surveillance powers that Congress gave them willingly and repeatedly.
Since Snowden–perhaps the most infamous government contractor this side of Blackwater–began his strategic leaks of documents that expose what former NSA Director Michael Hayden called the “underlying architecture of the US intelligence gathering network” in a recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review, the outrage at the ways that the NSA, FBI and other agencies have used the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to gather massive amounts of data on suspected enemies, both foreign and domestic, has rippled through both parties. Republicans and Democrats alike–many of whom were in Washington when these powers were granted–have joined together to say: Hey, this isn’t what we intended when we set up a secret court to approve your surveillance requests and gave you the ability to collect all of the “tangible things” that are deemed “relevant” to an intelligence investigation.
And now Congress is threatening to turn this car around right now if the NSA and the FBI don’t start behaving immediately.
“Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said to Cole of the Justice Department during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on July 17. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew section 215.”
That’s the same Jim Sensenbrenner who wrote the PATRIOT Act, and he’s telling the Justice Department that Section 215, the bit that authorizes the FBI to demand a wide range of “tangible things”–including business records and telephone metadata, for example–that they need for national security investigations, may well not be available to them any longer if things don’t change. That could just be saber-rattling, but maybe not. Sensenbrenner, for one, seemed legitimately angry that a law he introduced in 2001 in response to terrorist attacks is now being used to monitor the actions of U.S. citizens on a massive scale.
As for the rest of them, who knows? Maybe they saw the red light on the camera and saw an opportunity to let their constituents know that they too, are mad as hell, and they’re probably not going to take it anymore. Possibly. Unless the president says they have to. Then they’ll craft some strongly worded statements and find another camera to read them into.
And despite the righteous indignation and the fist-shaking and the finger-pointing, that’s the most likely outcome. Congress has a long history of working itself up into a frenzy on issues like this, but its history of getting anything done as a result of those tizzies is somewhat less long. So as the parade of witnesses continues and the hearings drone on and the politicians jockey for the moral high ground, take comfort in the fact that it all will end soon. By Aug. 5, when the bell rings and congressmen throw their papers in the air and rush for the private jets idling at National Airport that will whisk them away to Turks and Caicos or Belize or Delaware, it will all be over. When the 535 members of Congress return in early September, sunburned, rested and ready, something else will have taken the place of Snowden’s leaks at the top of the agenda–the economy, budget woes, health care reform.
So enjoy it while it lasts, because outrage, especially congressional outrage, has a very limited shelf life.
Image from Flickr photos of l’ennui d’ennui.