Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Senate: easily distracted by shiny toys

There was a closed-door briefing for US senators about NSA spying. Only 47 attended because it was the weekend. Well, it was Thursday afternoon, but that evidently counts as the weekend in Washington.

Here’s what Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said afterwards: “We were given some very specific and helpful information about how these programs have helped keep the American people safe. I can’t imagine any United States senator sitting through a briefing like we just had and not feeling thankful for the efforts that NSA and others put forth.”

I’m reminded of the chapter on Congressional oversight of intelligence matters in Victor Marchetti and John Marks’ The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (1974):

A more current example of the CIA's evasive tactics occurred in 1966 when the Senate appropriations subcommittee was thought to have some hard questions to ask about the growing costs of technical espionage programs. DCI Helms responded to the senatorial interest by bringing with him the CIA's Deputy Director for Science & Technology, Dr. Albert D. "Bud" Wheelon, who loaded himself up with a bag full of spy gadgets-a camera hidden in a tobacco pouch, a radio transmitter hidden in false teeth, a tape recorder in a cigarette case, and so on. This equipment did not even come from Wheelan's part of the agency but was manufactured by the Clandestine Services; if, however, the Senators wanted to talk about "technical" matters, Helms and his assistant were perfectly willing to distract them with James Bond-type equipment.

Wheelon started to discuss the technical collection programs, but as he talked he let the Senators inspect the gadgets. Predictably, the discussion soon turned to the spy paraphernalia. One persistent Senator asked two questions about the new and expensive technical collection systems the CIA was then putting into operation, but Wheelon deftly turned the subject back to the gadgets. When the Senator asked his question a third time, Chairman Russell told him to hold his inquiry until the CIA men were finished. But the Senators became so enthralled with the equipment before them that no more questions were asked.

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