Conspiracy paranoiacs rejoice: the controversial spy operation known as ECHELON, reportedly run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), is going under the microscope when Congress returns from the holidays.
In a double blow to the spook agency's sense of immunity, Congress has drafted a bill requiring it to account for itself, while the House Government Reform Committee has decided to grill NSA officials in hearings early next year.
The struggle warmed up earlier this year as the House Select Committee on Intelligence requested documents from the NSA explaining its operating standards. NSA officials refused to deliver the information, invoking attorney/client privilege, a sadly thin defence.
Public relations has never been the NSA's strong suit, though its aloof character does have its uses in terms of 'deniability.' But snubbing Congress was a foolish move, as legislators will now, on principle, demand a good deal more information than they had originally sought, and probably vote themselves some form of oversight power.
Oversight is a bit tricky, as Congress is not empowered to supervise military operations per se, though it has the power of the purse and can, when aroused, limit funds for operations of which it disapproves. In one famous example, former President Richard Nixon learned of this power the hard way when a disgusted Congress cut off financing for the Vietnam War, effectively shutting it down.
Widespread rumours that the NSA is indulging in illegal surveillance of US citizens, and in industrial and commercial espionage to give US corporations an edge over foreign competitors, have only gained currency since the Agency decided to withhold information from Congress.
US Representative Robert Barr (R--Georgia) is among the NSA's most vocal critics. Barr, a former CIA official and US Attorney, serves on the House reform committee which is slated to grill NSA officials when Congress returns from the Winter break. Considering that background, his credentials as a prudent critic are more or less bulletproof.
"Everyone who places a high value on our right to privacy should be encouraged [since] the House of Representatives has taken the first step toward requiring the Intelligence Community to prove [that] adequate procedures are in place to protect that right," Barr said.
The hearings should prove to be a nightmare for the NSA, which is universally distrusted, feared and resented throughout the world. Its capabilities are unknown, often wildly exaggerated; and it is widely suspected of abusing its charter to root through the private affairs of ordinary citizens.
More importantly, in spite of the air of intrigue it tries so hard to project, the NSA appears to be hopelessly incompetent at the work it is supposed to be doing. In the past two years it has managed to be utterly surprised by, among other things: the launch of a North Korean ballistic missile over Japan; the testing of an Indian nuclear weapon; the bombing of an American military compound in Saudi Arabia; and two US embassy bombings in Africa.
If there are any lines of questioning the Agency should fear from Congress, its repeated inability to translate the billions of terabits of data it collects into anything approaching useful intelligence will be chief among them. The sort of deniability the Agency thrives on may well turn out to be a denial that it can't do its job.
Meanwhile, new national legislation is in the works. If passed, the Foreign Intelligence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2000 will require the CIA, the NSA and the Department of Justice to report to Congress on ECHELON's activities in both classified and unclassified documents.
The chief concern is whether the NSA is gathering information on US citizens, which it is forbidden to do. Congress also wishes to assess NSA's "legal standards", or its safeguards against intercepting American communications, to determine if they are adequate, or even extant.
The House and Senate have already voted for separate versions of the bill. Differences sent the text to Conference Committee, and a Conference Report did issue before the end of this year's session. The House passed it, but the Senate has not yet voted on it. Because the Conference Report more closely mirrors the original Senate version, it is expected to pass without difficulty.
Barring any unforeseen reversals, a light will be shone into the dark, mouldy corners the NSA occupies. The Register expects a number of unsavoury objects to be revealed; but as we believe more readily in incompetence than in malevolence, we fully expect these to indicate a wall of secrecy and an air of intrigue engineered primarily to conceal a hopeless lack of effectiveness, and an inability to justify a generous budget provided at the taxpayers' expense. ®