As the debate over the NSA surveillance scandal rages on, two Congressional committees are now in the midst of a battle that will determine who gets the first crack at reforming the NSA’s intelligence gathering policies. The battle between the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee will largely determine the extent to which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will be modified in the post-Snowden era. While much is still unclear, a historical comparison to the Pike and Church Committees from the Cold War era may well demonstrate which stance the government should take on NSA reforms.
Both the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee have jurisdiction over FISA reforms, but deciding which Committee will actually get that chance will have major implications as to the extent of those reforms. The House Intelligence Committee reportedly already considered at least one proposed bill at a classified session last week. The only known bill, authored by rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), would reportedly give Congress more access to internal NSA surveillance orders as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the judicial body that oversees surveillance authorization under FISA. However, the fate of the bill is unclear at this point since House leadership has already requested that it be pulled from consideration.
On the other hand, the House Judiciary Committee is apparently ready to take a much harder line on NSA reforms. One of its proposed bills, authored by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) would completely eliminate the NSA’s highly controversial phone record collection program (the PRISM program). Congress must now weigh the extent to which FISA needs to be reformed and which Committee’s vision best fits the overall goals of FISA reforms. It will not be clear which Committee would be able to pass effective, meaningful reform until the House Judiciary Committee publicizes its plans. While it may be tempting to support the Judiciary Committee and its alleged sweeping reforms, especially given recent public outcry surrounding the NSA’s surveillance programs, it may actually be a better option to give the nod to the Intelligence Committee
The current battle between the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee can easily be compared to the battle between the Pike and Church Committees in the 1970s, when the government attempted to reign CIA operations carried out on American soil. Much like the situation at hand, the CIA was accused of placing surveillance on domestic anti-Vietnam War activists. In response, the House formed the Pike Committee and the Senate formed the Church Committee to look into the accusations.
While the Church Committee opted to focus on fixing only the highly publicized problems with the CIA, the Pike Committee focused more on the CIA’s overall effectiveness and cost to American taxpayers. As a result, the Pike Committee never formed a working relationship with the CIA and faced opposition in the White House in regard to access to CIA documents and programs. In fact, the Pike Committee devoted an entire section of its final report to detailing its struggles.
The Church Committee suffered plenty of setbacks of its own. Despite conducting over 800 interviews and 250 executive hearings, the Committee never gained the support of high-ranking members of the Senate and was largely viewed by the government and public in a negative light. Public figures criticized the Committee for treasonously publicizing highly sensitive CIA information. The outcry only intensified when a CIA station chief was assassinated in Greece during the course of the Church Committee’s investigation.
Applying perspective from the fallout of the Pike and Church Committees, the takeaway is that a straightforward, well-thought-out approach to FISA and NSA reforms may be the best option at this point. This will surely not be the only opportunity to fix the NSA’s procedures and taking it slow may allow Congress to avoid many of the pitfalls the Pike and Church Committees experienced. While neither Committee will have full Congressional support, it appears that the Intelligence Committee’s tentative plan fits that bill. More Congressional control over the NSA may not be as appealing to the public’s eye as the complete elimination of the PRISM program, but history shows that the long-term effects might be.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research