The $80 billion U.S. intelligence community is a notoriously hard target for the congressional committees charged with overseeing them. Because the programs they check are shrouded in state secrecy, Congress rarely comprehensively digs into the U.S. government’s human espionage, cyber snooping, satellite imagery and wiretapping.
That may be changing. In April, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence assigned staff to a review of all U.S. intelligence programs, according to staffers on the committee. The staffers have already sent information requests to U.S. spy agencies and they expect to complete the review by next September, according to these staffers.
One senior staff member on the committee said the review intends to develop a “comprehensive list of all the collection programs from the U.S. intelligence community.”
If the committee turns up programs its members were unaware of—and issues a public report of its findings (two big ifs for now)—it could be another vindication for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked a trove of secret documents in 2013.
Already Snowden’s leaks have prompted the Obama administration to conduct its own review of the government’s collection of telephone call records. Obama this year agreed in principle to end the government’s bulk storage of those call records and internal reforms to the process of spying on foreign leaders.
Steven Aftergood, the director on the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said he was unaware of a congressional committee ever conducting a review this broad in scope before. “Most continuing programs escape review during the annual budget cycle,” Aftergood said, referring to the intelligence committee’s role in reviewing the annual $80 billion intelligence community budget. Aftergood added, “Probably the majority of what the intelligence community does gets overlooked, not overseen. That is because the committee needs to pick its targets, so it naturally focuses on what is new and different.”
The continuing programs that would be reviewed, according to committee staff members, would cover the whole range of intelligence collection. “We are talking a very broad scope here,” one senior committee staff member said. “All the programs through which the intelligence community collects intelligence. Human intelligence, signal intelligence, open source. It is all subject to the review.”
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