Break-ins, Leaks, and Breaking News: Intelligence Reforms, Past & Present

During the Nation FOI Day Celebration at the Newseum on Friday, March 14 we brought together a panel of reporters and policy-makers to talk past and present leaks of information about US surveillance programs, the effects on society in these cases, and resulting reforms in intelligence policy and practice. In particular, panelists discussed the similarities and differences between the 1971 break-in to the Media, PA FBI Field Office, which eventually contributed to the creation of the Church Committee, and the revelations made by Edward Snowden, which has already spawned some reform efforts in Congress. Below are a few of our major take-aways from the program and video of the panel.

1) Reform Takes Time, and Continued Pressure. There was a significant amount of time, and several intervening steps between the first revelations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's extensive and invasive domestic spying program and Congress' decision to create the Church Committee. The envelope of documents stolen from the Media, PA Field Office and delivered to Betty Medsger and a few others were really just the tip of the iceberg: it took additional investigative work by journalists relying on the Freedom of Information Act and whistleblowers to uncover the entire scope of the FBI's spying on American citizens and the extent to which US officials were lying to the public. Also, the revelations alone were not enough to convince Congress it needed to act: it took real public outrage and pressure to push Congress' hand.

In the case of the new revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) programs, we obviously have quite a bit more information than what was included in Betty Medsger's envelope — and journalists are continuing to write hard-hitting stories based off of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. We have also seen a sophisticated effort on the part of privacy, civil liberties and transparency organizations and technology companies to push for reforms in the wake of these revelations. In order to achieve reforms, these organizations must continue to educate the public about the effect of the government's programs on society and keep pressure on Congress to act.

2) Making Reform Work Requires Vigilance. In the wake of the Church Committee, Congress made two reforms that were intended to create more oversight of the US surveillance programs and place some boundaries around their use: the creation of the Intelligence Committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). One panelist referred to these reforms as an "experiment."

Many would be tempted to say that these experiments are a failure in light of what we have learned about how the Intelligence Committees and FISC not only did not check the growth of the NSA's programs, but actually allowed for their expansion (in secret) in important ways. The lesson for reformers is that the battle does not stop when a reform bill is passed. It will take continued vigilance to make sure reforms are well-implemented, and have their intended effect.


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