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.