One of the arguments being made by the Obama administration in defense of the newly revealed surveillance programs is that it’s all okay because elected members of Congress were briefed on it and are okay with it. Conor Friedersdorf points out why that claim is pretty meaningless, as is the idea of congressional oversight in general when dealing with these secret programs:
Congress cannot act as a check on the executive branch in the way the Framers intended when hugely consequential policies it is overseeing are treated as state secrets. The Senate, intended as a deliberative body, cannot deliberate when only the folks on the right committees are fully briefed, and the Ron Wyden types among them think what’s happening is horribly wrong, but can’t tell anyone why because it’s illegal just to air the basic facts.
Our senators have literally been reduced to giving dark hints…
It’s one thing to keep the identities of CIA agents and the location of our nuclear arsenal classified. But this is something different. The national-security state, as currently constituted, is removing many of the most important moral and strategic policy questions we face from the realm of democratic debate and accountability. In a real sense, our current approach is preventing our system of government from functioning in very basic ways that the Framers intended.
He’s right. The Senate Intelligence Committee gets briefed on these programs, but almost certainly only gets a portion of it. And on that committee, we have two prominent members who have for years been speaking out against those secret programs while trying not to reveal secrets that could get them in legal trouble. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been saying very loudly that if the American public knew what was really going on, they’d be outraged. So it isn’t true that Congress has been briefed on this and is okay with it; the ones that actually give a damn about civil liberties and limiting executive power — no, Dianne Feinstein, you are not on that list — have been sounding the alarm for years as best they could.
Add to this the fact that the NSA and the DNI routinely lie to Congress and it becomes obvious that Congressional oversight is mostly a sham.