Congressional Republicans suddenly discover the need for oversight

Driven by the public disclosure of but a fraction of the surveillance abuses they have enabled, Congressional Republicans pretend to discover the virtues of oversight.

Published March 21, 2007 12:43PM (EDT)

(updated below)

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday held a hearing concerning the FBI's illegal use of NSLs to spy on Americans. The Inspector General who revealed (at least some of) the abuses, Glenn Fine, along with the FBI's General Counsel, Valerie Caproni, testified.

The Washington Post reported that these revelations "evoked heated criticism of the bureau from Republicans and Democrats alike." The Associated Press said that "Republicans and Democrats sternly warned the FBI on Tuesday that it could lose its broad power to collect telephone, e-mail and financial records to hunt terrorists after revelations of widespread abuses of the authority detailed in a recent internal investigation."

Both articles included a series of quotes from Republican Congressmen expressing very, very righteous anger and betrayal over the fact that the FBI has been abusing all of the unchecked powers which Congressional Republicans gave to them. From AP:

If the FBI doesn't move swiftly to correct the mistakes and problems revealed last week in Fine's 130-page report, "you probably won't have NSL authority," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a supporter of the power, referring to the data requests by their initials.

"From the attorney general on down, you should be ashamed of yourself," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "We stretched to try to give you the tools necessary to make America safe, and it is very, very clear that you've abused that trust."

If Congress revokes some of the expansive law enforcement powers it granted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Issa said, "America may be less safe, but the Constitution will be more secure, and it will be because of your failure to deal with this in a serious fashion." . . .

"The problem is enforcement of the law, not the law itself," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the panel's senior GOP member. "We need to be vigilant to make sure these problems are fixed."

And from the Post:

[Fine's] account evoked heated criticism of the bureau from Republicans and Democrats alike, including a comment from Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) that it "sounds like a report about a first- or second-grade class" . . . .

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) expressed surprise at how widespread the use of national security letters had become, asking: "Do we have that many potential terrorists running around the country? If so, I'm really worried." He said the inspector general's report shows that "the FBI has had a gross overreach," and added that its officials "can't get away with this and expect to maintain public support for the tools that they need to combat terrorism."

Of course, this sudden discovery of the need for oversight was prompted only by highly public revelations of abuse. And the reason why all of this happened -- and this is but a tiny fraction of the lawbreaking and abuse going on -- is because Congressional Republicans spent the last six years purposely allowing the Executive branch to accumulate unlimited amounts of unchecked power, while they blocked every attempt (most of which were lame and half-hearted) by Congressional Democrats to exert oversight over how these powers were used.

Thus, the very same Congressional Republican caucus now pretending to be so shocked and upset over these abuses were the ones who spent the last six years enabling these very abuses. They vested these powers and then completely abdicated their responsibilities to exercise oversight.

And it was not mere abdication of their responsibilities of which they are guilty, but worse still, all-out attacks on those who warned of the dangers of allowing the Executive to exercise unchecked surveillance and other powers over Americans. Just look at the quotes from these Republican Congressmen -- "Do we have that many potential terrorists running around the country? If so, I'm really worried"; "America may be less safe, but the Constitution will be more secure" -- which are rather similar to the arguments made over the last six years by opponents of unchecked executive power.

Over the last six years, people who voiced these objections were repeatedly accused -- by Congressional Republicans and their party -- of being advocates of Terrorist Rights and being Allies of Al Qaeda as a result of those objections. Yet these are the same objections which Congressional Republicans -- now that the FBI's abuses have become inescapably clear -- are voicing in order to transform themselves from Guilty Parties into shocked and disappointed victims.

These are the same people who defended the President's right to eavesdrop on the telephone conversations of Americans in secret and with no oversight even though the law made that a felony, and then voted to legalize that unchecked eavesdropping. They did not want to investigate any reports of illegal behavior on the part of the administration with regard to a whole slew of abuses.

They blocked every effort to impose some minimal checks on those powers or to investigate them in any way. And from signing statements to indefinite detentions of Americans, they obediently embraced every radical assertion of unchecked presidential power (and kudos to The Oregonian for taking note of the obvious connection that "President Bush [in his signing statement] rejected some of these reporting requirments in a signing statement last year. His opposition may have influenced FBI thinking").

All of the available evidence suggests that this one-day theatrical outburst of Concern for Oversight will be fleeting and inconsequential. Already, as Bernhard notes, the FBI is instituting what appear to be procedures which would be even more susceptible to abuse, whereby they can obtain records from telecoms orally, unaccompanied by any documentary requests. And, despite the new "agreement" to eavesdrop within the parameters of the FISA court, the resulting abuses from the Congressional Republicans' defense of secret, oversight-less eavesdropping are (just by the way) still almost certainly ongoing (h/t Kevin Hayden).

It is hardly news that most Beltway politicians are bereft of any sense of responsibility for their actions or consistency of any kind. Still, even with that understanding at the forefront of one's mind, it is difficult to witness the revolting spectacle of Congressional Republicans of all people pretending to be angry over executive abuses of unchecked surveillance power and flamboyantly masquerading around as aggressive watchdogs over the rights of Americans. Even for our political culture, that is really a bit much.

UPDATE: In Comments, Mr. Snadman provides the most concise summary of this entire episode:

Things that make you go "huh"

Who would have guessed that, given unchecked power, the government would abuse that power. Huh.

As for the U.S. attorneys matter, Barbara O'Brein has an excellent post analyzing recent events concerning the substance of the scandal, including the very potent Op-Ed in the NYT by fired Republican U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico. Every Bush follower will have to confront the facts in that Op-Ed in order to argue that nothing improper occurred here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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