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Biggest Hurdle to Intel Reform Bill: Election-Year Politics

Jan. 9, 2014 - 04:27PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Disclosures of US surveillance methods by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has touched off a flurry of congressional interest in intelligence reform, but election-year politics could threaten any real action. (AFP via Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — A stacked election-year legislative docket focused on domestic issues, along with pressure from the White House and powerful lawmakers, could prevent intelligence-reform legislation from getting a vote.

Senior US Democratic and Republican lawmakers — including the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees — say changes are needed after former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden leaked details of several highly classified surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA).

So far, one congressional committee has approved a measure that would, if signed into law, usher in some changes to those controversial NSA programs, which officials say are a critical tool against al-Qaida and similar groups.

Other lawmakers are pushing legislation that analysts say proposes even more substantial changes to such programs. And yet others want to legislate tougher standards used to determine how much access to classified data should be granted to contractors.

That means there will be multiple NSA/intelligence reform bills working through multiple committees and written by multiple senior lawmakers — in both chambers. It remains unclear if a consensus bill will emerge. And, notably, it’s likely the White House will oppose major legislative changes to executive branch programs it is expected to tinker with on its own, trying to stave off congressional changes.

Further complicating the path to final passage of an intelligence-reform bill is election-year politics. Both parties returned here last week and made clear their priorities are all domestic. Republicans and Democrats already are fighting over issues such as unemployment insurance, the fate of Obamacare, immigration reform, and the terms by which they will raise the federal debt ceiling.

Each issue will chew up weeks of a truncated congressional calendar that will see members of both chambers spend ample time back home campaigning rather than legislating here.

“I wonder if any intel reform or NSA legislation will pass at all,” said James Lewis, a former State Department intelligence official with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Members that I’ve talked to say if they get enough pushback from their constituents, they’ll have to respond,” Lewis said. “But all the polling says most Americans are comfortable with the NSA programs.

“I don’t see a lot of movement toward a bill that people can vote for, so you’re going to have competing bills and competing concepts,” Lewis said. “They’ve only got about seven months to do this, in addition to all the other things they say they’re going to do. And no one member really has the time or the ability to shove a bill down everyone elses’ throat.”

Two senior Senate Republicans who could help deliver GOP votes that might be needed to end debate on an NSA/intel reform bill and then pass it are skeptical that the chamber’s majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will defy the White House and let senators vote on such a measure.

“He doesn’t let much of any legislation come to the floor,” the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Defense News. “But I think there’s bipartisan agreement that we need to have a debate over the NSA.”

Add to the skeptical list Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an influential voice in the GOP caucus on national security issues.

“I think it deserves hearings, and it deserves a legislative vehicle that would then have debate and amendments,” McCain said. “But, unfortunately, the majority leader doesn’t seem to like that legislative process.”

A Reid spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Some members believe an NSA/intel reform bill will pass this year. One is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who also is a member of the chamber’s Intelligence Committee.

“It could and should. I think it’s likely,” Levin said in an interview. “I think there’s a real move in the area of reassuring the public that their privacy is not going to be invaded by new technologies that are opening doors that haven’t been open before.”

Levin told Defense News he believes Congress will craft some kind of bill to ensure the NSA is not monitoring email and telephone conversations.

“I don’t think people, once they look at this, are concerned about the collection of billions of digits [of data],” Levin said. “Could they ever dig into the content of conversations? That’s the troubling possibility.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who chairs a House Armed Services Committee panel overseeing military intelligence programs and sits on the chamber’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Defense News in a statement that the lawmakers are focused on increasing funding to “strengthen insider threat detection.

“Additionally, the [Intelligence] Committee will be working to improve security clearance protocols and enhance oversight of intelligence programs,” Thornberry said.

One analyst and industry insider said changes in that area could impact defense firms.

“Snowden’s revelations have caused huge damage to US intelligence operations,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va. “However, the damage is done, and imposing major changes on how contractors clear employees could greatly increase costs without materially improving security.”■


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