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Think Your Job's Hard? Try Being A Congressional Spy Watcher

Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky arrives in Chicago with President Obama in March.
Paul Beaty
Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky arrives in Chicago with President Obama in March.

As the controversy over the National Security Agency's phone and Internet data gathering reminds us, one of Congress' most challenging assignments is oversight of the nation's intelligence community.

Keeping tabs on the part of the federal government that constantly invokes national security to justify its opaqueness has its obvious difficulties and frustrations.

Those frustrations came through in a conversation I had with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who has served on the House Intelligence Committee for six years. She's the top Democrat on the intelligence oversight subcommittee.

How challenging is it for lawmakers to do oversight of the intelligence community given all the secrecy? I asked.

SCHAKOWSKY: "There's a number of challenges for all of us on the intelligence committee because all of us, maybe with the exception of the chairman and ranking member who may spend most of their time dealing with the issues of the intelligence committee, most of the rest of us are definitely part-timers. We work on other committees.

"So the responsibility of oversight of 16 intelligence agencies, including the huge ones of the CIA and the FBI and the NSA, it's a tremendous responsibility. And yet the cards are stacked against us in many ways, in terms of doing a really good job, particularly for the rank and file.

"Often it's just the chairman and ranking member on both the House and the Senate intelligence committees that are fully read into all the classified information and the covert operations. So we're not always fully up to date and fully briefed on everything."

Compound that with the fact that intelligence officials are by training or inclination in the habit of answering only what they're asked — and sometimes not even that — and the exasperation only grows.

Lawmakers have been known to refer to the whole exercise of trying to pry information from the nation's spymasters as "20 Questions," only their first question isn't "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" but "How much of the 'black budget' is it?"

SCHAKOWSKY: "If you didn't ask exactly the right question, frame it in exactly the right way, you were unlikely to get the information you were really going for.

"You have to dig for it and you have to know to dig for it."

When members are briefed about the most secret operations of U.S. intelligence agencies, that creates other issues. At that point they have to try and keep straight in their heads what is and isn't still classified. That doesn't always work out well.

In 2009, for instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, publicly confirmed that the U.S. had drones over Pakistani soil, becoming the first U.S. official to do so and creating something of a ruckus.

SCHAKOWSKY: "You have the problem that we really can't talk to anybody about what we learned. We have to be very careful that we're not disclosing classified information. And that of course includes all of our colleagues who are not on the intelligence committees, it includes all of our personal staff that we work with everyday, and it certainly includes the media as well.

"I think many of us resolve it by saying very little, regardless of how strong our feelings may be about a particular issue.

"Let me give you an example. Even when in the media, the public domain, the issue of drones [was widely discussed], there were many stories, there were many references to drones, the members of the intelligence committee could not even acknowledge that there was such a program, which is awkward at best."

In one of those Washington ironies, it was the fear that lawmakers might stumble into classified territory in discussing the Benghazi attacks that led to the talking points at the heart of the controversy. The House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, had requested intelligence community guidance on what lawmakers could safely say. The rest is, as they say, history.

Because of the talking-points controversy, Schakowsky suggested that lawmakers would likely take a different approach in the future.

SCHAKOWSKY: "I certainly understand the impulse to ask the intelligence community to tell us what we can say to the public. I think what we're going to see going forward by the way is that members, and particularly leadership, would draft something ourselves and then give it to the intelligence community for them to amend rather than having the first draft and the final product coming out of the intelligence community itself. But this was definitely in my view a process in good faith that began with a pretty simple request."

For years, many policymakers have complained that one of Washington's worst kept secrets is that too many pieces of information are classified. Count Schakowsky among them. She blames the overclassification of national-security information for contributing to the current NSA controversy.

SCHAKOWSKY: It certainly came up ... in the conversation [Thursday morning at a closed hearing] with Gen. [Keith] Alexander [who heads the NSA] ... that certainly a number of us want to see more things declassified.

"My view is that had the program, not any of the details but the program that included the collecting of the metadata, that from the beginning we could have talked about the number of regulations that are used to safeguard privacy, the oversight compliance, legal framework that protect privacy, if all that was made clear to the American people and what metadata means and that no was no individual information, I think had we been able to have a conversation about it at the time ... I think most Americans would have gone along with it. ... So I think sometimes the tendency to overclassify things ends up being a hindrance more than a help."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.