House Intelligence Bill Fumbled Transparency

06.06.14 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Intelligence community whistleblowers would have been able to submit their complaints to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) under a proposed amendment to the intelligence authorization act that was offered last week by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

This could have been an elegant solution to the whistleblowing conundrum posed by Edward Snowden. It made little sense for Snowden to bring his concerns about bulk collection of American phone records to the congressional intelligence committees, considering that they had already secretly embraced the practice.

The PCLOB, by contrast, has staked out a position as an independent critical voice on intelligence policy. (And it has an unblemished record for protecting classified information.) The Board’s January 2014 report argued cogently and at length that the Section 215 bulk collection program was likely unlawful as well as ineffective.

In short, the PCLOB seemed like a perfect fit for any potential whistleblower who might have concerns about the legality or propriety of current intelligence programs from a privacy or civil liberties perspective.

But when Rep. Gabbard offered her amendment to the intelligence authorization act last week, it was not voted down– it was blocked. The House Rules Committee declared that the amendment was “out of order” and could not be brought to a vote on the House floor.

Several other amendments on transparency issues met a similar fate. These included a measure proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff to require reporting on casualties resulting from targeted killing operations, a proposal to disclose intelligence spending at the individual agency level, and another to require disclosure of the number of U.S. persons whose communications had been collected under FISA, among others.

In dismay at this outcome, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and I lamented the “staggering failure of oversight” in a May 30 op-ed. See The House Committee on Intelligence Needs Oversight of Its Own, MSNBC.

The House did approve an amendment offered by Rep. John Carney (D-DE) to require the Director of National Intelligence “to issue a report to Congress on how to improve the declassification process across the intelligence community.” While the DNI’s views on the subject may indeed be of interest, the amendment failed to specify the problem it intended to address (erroneous classification standards? excessive backlogs? something else?), and so it is unclear exactly what is to be improved.

However, a more focused classification reform program may be in the works.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that he would introduce “a comprehensive security clearance reform bill” that would also address the need to shrink the national security classification system.

The Thompson bill, which is to be introduced “in the coming weeks,” would “greatly expand the resources and responsibilities of the Public Interest Declassification Board,” Rep. Thompson said during the House floor debate on the intelligence bill on May 30.

“A well-resourced and robust Board is essential to increasing accountability of the intelligence community,” he said.