Yet even the director of national intelligence, James Clapper — who once denied point-blank to Congress that the government collects data on millions of Americans — now sees the need for some sort of change. “We can do with more oversight and give people more confidence in what we do,” he said in a mid-September speech.
Yes, indeed. Here’s the problem: Once given power, the government rarely yields it. So you have to think not only about its present use, but how it will be used a decade or even more from now. Even if you concede the current administration and its intelligence leadership have been responsible stewards of the powers they’ve been given — and I don’t — that is no guarantee the people who follow them, or the people who come after that, will be equally trustworthy.
This means Congress has some challenging work ahead. It needs to restore the proper balance between effective intelligence-gathering and intrusion into Americans’ privacy. It needs to demand more thoroughgoing accountability from the intelligence community. It needs to exercise greater oversight and insist on more transparency, more information, and more constraint on surveillance programs — defining what is truly relevant to an investigation, creating more stringent definitions of which communications are fair game, and finding ways to assure Americans that protecting their privacy and civil liberties need not mean the wholesale vacuuming-up of every domestic phone and email record in existence.
There is no place for the timidity Congress has shown so far on these issues.
Our system depends on a vigorous Congress. The administration argues it can provide rigorous intelligence-gathering oversight, but it has yet to prove it can do so — and in our system of checks and balances, it’s not enough to have one branch of government overseeing itself. Congress, the courts, and the presidentially appointed Privacy and Civil Liberties Board all have to step up to their responsibilities.