The Cable

Senate to Start Sweeping Intel Review This Month

Back in October, the embattled National Security Agency seemed to lose one of its staunchest allies when Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suddenly promised "a major review into all intelligence collection programs." Almost immediately, former intelligence officials and some congressional Republicans expressed doubts about whether Feinstein seriously intended to take on the intelligence agencies, or whether she was attempting to deflect from the committee's own lack of awareness of the extent of the NSA's vast surveillance programs.

For the first time, however, details have emerged about the scope and duration of the review. It will include not only an examination of how the agencies collect information, but how senior government officials direct those activities.

A Senate aide told The Cable that the review will proceed in two stages. The first stage, which will begin before Thanksgiving, will examine "how the [intelligence community] receives orders" about what subjects they should be paying attention to. That will be followed by what the aide described as "a longer stage" that will examine how the agencies structure their programs to collect information on those subjects. The entire review is expected to take nine months.

"Bottom line: Folks should not be skeptical," the aide told The Cable.

In her statement in October, Feinstein said a full review was necessary "so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community." She said she was "totally opposed" to spying on foreign leaders and that the oversight body had not been "satisfactorily informed" about NSA surveillance.

By definition, any review of all intelligence collection programs could include not just the NSA but the CIA, numerous Defense Department and military intelligence agencies, and elements of the FBI. The last time the intelligence community was subjected to an expansive congressional review of its operations was during hearings chaired by Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike in the mid-1970s. They investigated illegal activities at the NSA, CIA, and the FBI, including spying on political activists and U.S. government officials. The so-called Church-Pike hearings led to legal restrictions on intelligence agency activities inside the United States or directed at Americans overseas. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs NSA spying on Americans, resulted from the hearings.

If the revelations of NSA spying result in another major round of intelligence hearings in Congress, it could be the most pronounced and significant effect of the Snowden leaks. But important details about how the new inquiry will be conducted remain unclear. One former U.S. official questioned whether the committee even has enough staff members to launch a broad review, considering that many of them are already working on investigations into how former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed thousands of pages of classified agency documents, and the operational consequences of those leaks. "They're working cheek to jowl over there," the former official said, crammed into the committee's relatively small classified offices.

Feinstein has acknowledged that, owing to cuts imposed by budget sequestration, the intelligence committee staff has been reduced in number. But she said she plans to hire additional staff members to work on the review, which she has said will include hearings.

Not everyone had been convinced that Feinstein's promise to investigate the intelligence agencies was more bark than bite. A former senior intelligence official recently told The Cable that he believed the inquiry would be wide-ranging and would uncover more controversial programs that will embarrass the intelligence agencies.

And following Feinstein's initial statement about NSA spying in October, some intelligence officials were fearful for their future, now that Feinstein appeared to break from her generally strong support of agency operations. "We're really screwed now," an NSA official said at the time. "You know things are bad when the few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address."

Feinstein is perhaps an unlikely defender of the country's biggest intelligence agency. A former San Francisco mayor, she hails from the home base of many of the NSA's biggest critics, including civil liberties activists groups, political progressives, and Silicon Valley technology companies.

"She's put herself at odds somewhat from her natural constituency," said a former intelligence official. "I think she knows she put herself out on a limb defending the NSA, and she'd like a little cooperation in return." The former official, like others who've been following Feinstein's recent evolution, said she is smarting from embarrassing disclosures about NSA spying from Snowden, which have raised questions about the thoroughness of intelligence committee's oversight.

In the House of Representatives, the chairman of the intelligence committee has said that if lawmakers didn't know what the NSA was up to, they've only themselves to blame. At a hearing in October about whether to modify current surveillance law, a clearly frustrated Rep. Mike Rogers all but admitted that the NSA had revealed to members of his committee the details of an operation that targeted the personal communications of as many as 35 foreign heads of state and government.

Rogers said the committee is privy to large amounts of information on U.S. spying, including a list of priority intelligence topics that is approved and modified by the president and his advisers and sets out parameters of U.S. intelligence gathering. Committee members have access to "sources and methods" of spying, as well as "mounds of material" about the fruits of spying, Rogers said.  

The Cable

Exclusive: U.S. Foreign Aid Group May Ignore Its Own Rules and Give Cash to Corrupt Regimes

A U.S. government-funded foreign aid organization is considering sending hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to countries whose flawed, corrupt or undemocratic governments should almost certainly be ineligible for the money according to the agency's own internal guidelines.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC, is an independent U.S. foreign aid agency dedicated to "advancing American values" by reducing poverty, advancing good governance, and weeding out corruption. But people familiar with the matter say that the MCC -- led by Colorado banker Daniel Yohannes (pictured above, left) -- is seriously contemplating giving money to Sierra Leone and Benin, which fail to meet its "control of corruption" requirements, and Liberia and Morocco, which meet less than half of the organization's 20 requirements for civil liberties, sound economic policies, and other measures. If approved, each country could receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government funding over the next few years.

At least one member of the MCC's eight-person board of directors has argued against giving money to the four countries, but it's not clear if that opposition will be enough to sway the rest of the board, which meets next month to review all of its current and potential projects. This is the first time in the MCC's nine-year history that so many potential recipients of its money have failed to meet the grant requirements. And it comes at a sensitive time for Yohannes; on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering his nomination to be America's representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It's far from a simple issue of bureaucratic infighting. If everything breaks right, the MCC money could give a quartet of poor countries the money they need to build new airports and take other steps to juice their economies. If the MCC bets on the wrong countries, by contrast, huge amounts of American money could disappear into the pockets of corrupt government officials or business leaders.

An MCC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the four countries had met all of the requirements in past years but fallen short this time around. The official said the scorecard was the first thing the board would look at, but that the country's failures to pass the requirements wouldn't necessarily disqualify them from continuing the negotiations over future aid packages.

"The board has discretion," the official said. "They scorecard is always the starting point, and its very important to the process, but nothing is automatic."

The MCC's internal debate over whether to provide funding to the four countries highlights the low-profile organization's unusual history and mission. Funded by Congress, the MCC is an independent aid agency that isn't part of the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development. That means that it does not provide general aid to countries like Israel or fund large-scale infrastructure projects in places like Afghanistan or Mali. Its sole mission, according to the agency's Web site, is to "reduce poverty through economic growth."

Countries that want a piece of the MCC's roughly $2 billion in annual funding have to go through a laborious, multi-year process that requires repeatedly passing a set of fairly stringent criteria.

The first hurdle is a scorecard of 20 measurements of things like a country's fiscal and trade policies, immunization rates and educational spending. Countries need to score above 50 percent on at least 10 of those indicators. Liberia and Morocco each only passed 9 of them.

The second requirement is that applicants notch scores of at least 51 percent on a subset of specific measurements of their levels of corruption, rule of law, civil liberties and other democratic rights. Benin and Sierra Leone failed to hit those targets.

The four countries' failings pose a difficult policy choice for the MCC's board, whose members include high-ranking members of the Obama administration like Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and outside experts like Lorne Craner, the president of the International Republican Institute. The board had opened formal negotiations with the governments of Benin, Liberia, Morocco and Sierra Leone over the past two years. The question the MCC's leadership will face next month is whether to continue their work with those governments despite their failures to meet the MCC's internal guidelines.

One member of the board has already urged his colleagues to sever the MCC's relationships with the four countries, but it's not yet clear what the rest of his colleagues think. The board operates by simple majority, and an official familiar with the matter said the December meeting would culminate in one of the toughest votes in the MCC's history. Asked to predict the outcome, the official had a blunt response: "ask me at the end of next month."

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