NSA revelations will not spawn Church, Pike-type congressional investigations

The growing furor on Capitol Hill over the National Security Agency's domestic intelligence operations will not trigger the kind of widespread congressional investigations that decimated the intelligence community in the late 1970s. 

The circumstances surrounding the NSA programs leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden are a "very different construct [and] very different set of facts" compared to the illegal activities by the intelligence community uncovered by the infamous Church and Pike Committee investigations, said Darren Dick, staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. 

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In 1975, then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and then-Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.) launched a pair of congressional investigations into possible criminal actions by U.S. intelligence officers during domestic and overseas operations going back to the 1950s. 

Revelations of illegal surveillance operations, CIA-backed government coups and political assassinations sanctioned by American intelligence agencies uncovered in the Church and Pike investigations ushered in a slew of new congressional oversight measures, designed to rein in the U.S. intelligence community. 

The disclosures also had a tremendous chilling effect on U.S. intelligence agencies, forever changing how Washington conducted espionage and counterintelligence operations into the present day. 

Critics of the NSA domestic intelligence operations claim the agency's data collection activities have crossed the line yet again, demanding increased oversight efforts from the White House and Congress akin to those adopted in the wake of the Church and Pike hearings. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has demanded a “total review” of all U.S. intelligence collection programs in the wake of the latest accusations that NSA officials were eavesdropping on top leaders of U.S. allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” Feinstein said in an Oct. 28 statement. 

"As far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing," she added at the time. 

NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander dismissed claims the agency was conducting surveillance on key U.S. allies, telling the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29 that it was European intelligence agencies conducting those eavesdropping missions, and the only role NSA had in the operation is that the agency was granted access to the intelligence gathered during those operations.

While pressure continues to mount against the intelligence community from Capitol Hill, Dick made clear there was no comparison between the NSA's operations and the community's activities revealed in the 1970s. 

"The [oversight] structure has not failed," Dick said Tuesday. 

The agency's domestic operations were "authorized, approved and overseen" by the White House, Congress and the federal courts, he added.

Additional congressional oversight could also end up slowing down intelligence operations, because "there is a limit for every member of Congress" to comprehend the intricacies of intelligence and collections work, Senate Intelligence Committee staff director David Grannis said. 

"You are not going to change that [but] I think there is a ... need for transparency and oversight" of intelligence operations in Congress. 

But the firestorm of criticism facing NSA has already created "an erosion of trust" within the U.S. intelligence community, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. 

The repeated criticism and second-guessing by Congress over the agency's operations has hindered intelligence community leaders from doing their jobs, Clapper told members during the same House intelligence hearing. 

"To be sure, we have made mistakes," Clapper said, but added the intelligence community has acted quickly to resolve those mistakes.

"That is what the American people want and that is what the president has asked us to do," he added.