I really don’t mean to pick on Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). The last time I took his comments on Meet the Press as a point of departure for a post, I was bewildered at his seeming lack of historical memory. This time, I’m a bit beside myself at his comments regarding government transparency.
Yesterday, Sen. Chambliss was asked by NBC’s David Gregory whether he was bothered by comments made by the Director of National Intelligence, Gen. James Clapper, that seemed designed to mislead Congress regarding the extent of government surveillance. Here’s the exchange between Sen. Wyden and Gen. Clapper all the way back in March – that is, before the Edward Snowden leaks:
Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
It does not?
Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect. But not wittingly.
And here’s the exchange between Mr. Gregory and Sen. Chambliss:
James Clapper told our Andrea Mitchell after that testimony that was the least untruthful answer he could give. Now this morning The Guardian Newspaper is reporting that members of Congress who want more information, now that it’s been leaked and been in public is still not learning about the true extent and depth and breadth of these surveillance programs.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS:
Well, if they are it’s their own fault because all they have to do is ask. And we make available within the confines of the intelligence community where, it’s what we call a skip, where classified information can be reviewed. All members of Congress have the ability to come in and review most of the documents that are involved in these programs.
Not all of them, but most of them. And I’m not going to defend General Clapper there. He can defend himself. But the fact is, Senator Wyden knew the answer to that question when he asked it. He knew that he was asking about a classified program. And yet, he still asked the question. It put the general in a very, very difficult position. But again, we go back to the fact that as Dick said, we do gather an awful lot of information.
And if you could tell us who the bad guys are, I assure you, we’d limit it to gathering on just the bad guys. But we don’t know.
Now, there’s a lot to say about the NSA’s surveillance programs, and most of it has probably already been said by someone. Whether you’re with the camp that thinks that the sort of intrusion the government’s surveillance represents is an unconscionable threat to privacy and liberty, or with the camp that thinks it’s a level-headed response to a serious threat, I’m sure you’ve found plenty of talking heads to agree with you.
As usual, my take on it is a little of this and a little of that. The threat to privacy is serious, but as a Boston resident just a few months removed from the horror of the marathon bombings, it would be naive not to recognize that the threat to our safety is real as well. As is almost always the case, there are real interests to be weighed against each other, there is no perfect solution, and people need to be willing to have a grown-up conversation about trade-offs.
Let’s all hold our breath and wait for that to happen.
But what is so upsetting about the Senator’s comments is the way they seem to disregard the public’s role in that process. Sen. Chambliss’ sympathy for the General’s dilemma, after he was confronted by Sen. Wyden (D-OR) in an open hearing about a classified program, is sensible enough if you take as your point of reference the perpetual battle over influence, prerogative, and information that is the bread and butter of Congressional hearings.
Left completely unexplored is the putative purpose of those meetings: government transparency. And there’s the rub.
Sen. Chambliss said that Sen. Wyden “knew the answer to the question before he asked it” – but, of course, the point is: we did not. And while it’s true that there seem to be a fair number of secrecy anarchists running around these days, essentially espousing that nothing should ever be classified, there also seems to be an uncomfortable crowd of establishment types on Sunday morning talk shows essentially telling us not to worry our pretty little heads about what the man on the news is reporting.
Is anyone else getting annoyed by that act? I know I am.
Americans have recently seen that a few cowards with an improvised bomb can take the lives of a handful and maim a score of people, but we would do well to remember that we have more to lose by allowing the notion that the government should do what it thinks is best without consulting us to perpetuate. Mr. Chambliss should take note.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.