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GUEST COLUMN: Americans need to be able to trust our intelligence agencies

By: Mark Udall
March 23, 2014 Updated: March 23, 2014 at 11:35 am
photo - UdallM-021009-18431- 0007
UdallM-021009-18431- 0007 

When U.S. spy agencies turn their sights on law-abiding Americans, it is unacceptable and unconstitutional.

The fundamental principles of individual privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure - nonnegotiable lines in the sand for our democracy - apply whether it's the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting bulk data about law-abiding Americans' phone calls or the CIA monitoring Congress. And these principles are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s when the Church Committee investigated shocking cases in which intelligence agencies overstepped their bounds and spied on the American public.

The findings that emerged from the Church Committee - its accounting of "tactics unworthy of a democracy, and occasionally reminiscent of the tactics of totalitarian regimes" - were ground-breaking. They ushered in a new era of oversight of our intelligence agencies, which restored the American public's confidence in Congress's ability to ensure that these intelligence agencies keep faith with the U.S. Constitution while also keeping us safe.

And just as the 1970s marked a "reset" for how our intelligence agencies functioned, the revelations of the past year show we need a similar reboot today.

I joined the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to help keep our nation safe, hold our intelligence agencies accountable and protect Americans' constitutional liberties. This is why I have worked across the aisle to ensure our intelligence agencies are able to meet their charge of protecting our national security.

However, it is vitally important for the American people to trust our intelligence agencies and to understand as much as possible what the government is doing on their behalf.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I therefore have worked to try to ensure we strike the right balance between privacy and security. Simultaneously, I have fought to subject intelligence agencies to the strong, independent oversight Coloradans and all Americans demand.

The Constitution is clear and Coloradans agree: Our democracy depends on respecting the separation of powers and Congress conducting independent, aggressive oversight of the executive branch. And these principles are even more important in light of the recent public revelations about CIA and NSA overreach.

Last summer, the public learned that the NSA routinely collects bulk information on tens of millions of Americans' phone calls. This revelation showed the public how secret interpretations of public law by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court likely violated Americans' 4th Amendment rights for years.

And over the past several weeks, the public has learned that the CIA tried to intimidate the Senate Intelligence Committee itself to avoid oversight and obstruct the committee's exhaustive review of the CIA's Bush-era detention and interrogation program.

As Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein recently said in the Senate, the CIA conducted an unauthorized and possibly illegal search of committee computers at a remote CIA facility where committee staff was researching records of the CIA's program and drafting the committee's 6,300-page report. This serious breach of the separation of powers has left many Americans shocked. Indeed, the CIA's tactics are reminiscent of actions that resulted in the Church Committee's creation and our modern era of intelligence oversight.

Taken together, the CIA's efforts to subvert oversight by the Senate Intelligence Committee related to the Bush-era detention and interrogation program along with the NSA's dragnet collection of American's private phone records have eroded the public's trust in our intelligence agencies and raised very serious constitutional questions.

Our system of checks and balances is the cornerstone of our government, a system that was meant to be defended and strengthened by the very creation of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The CIA's efforts to undermine the committee's oversight work are particularly hostile to our democracy, which is why the president and his administration must unequivocally denounce the agency's actions and affirm that it is the Congress that oversees the intelligence community - not the other way around.

This is not a partisan issue - and my responsibilities as a U.S. senator do not change based on which president sits in the Oval Office.

I was encouraged when the White House recently heeded my long-standing call to affirm that the bulk collection of Americans' phone records cannot be allowed to continue and that the president is committed to declassifying the Senate Intelligence Committee's detention and interrogation study. I will continue to push the administration to not only affirm that the CIA overstepped its bounds, but also to take a look at the agency's leadership to ensure that those who operate its highest levels indeed have an unshakable respect for our founding principles.


Udall, Colorado's senior U.S. senator, serves on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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