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“We Can’t Just Give a Blank Check”: Lawmakers Call for Ending Secrecy of U.S. Intel’s Black Budget

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We speak with Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont about a bipartisan bill that would force President Obama to include the total dollar amount requested for each of the 16 intelligence agencies in his budget proposal. Using documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Washington Post has revealed the nation’s so-called “black budget” to be $53 billion, a 54 percent hike over the past decade. The documents also revealed the NSA is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to U.S. telephone and Internet companies for clandestine access to their communications networks. Welch has joined Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, a fellow member of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, in co-sponsoring the Intelligence Budget Transparency Act. “If you are going to have any oversight whatsoever, you have to know what the budget is,” Welch says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to what’s known as the black budget. That’s the term for secret budgets of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, including the NSA and CIA. Last year, The Washington Post used documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to reveal the nation’s black budget to be $53 billion. The Post reported the CIA had received a 56 percent increase in its budget over the past decade, while the NSA got a 54 percent hike. The black budget also revealed the NSA is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to telephone and Internet companies for secret access to their communications networks.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, now a bipartisan push has begun on Capitol Hill to make parts of the black budget public. Democratic Congressmember Peter Welch of Vermont and Republican Congressmember Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, both members of the House Oversight [Subcommittee] on National Security, have co-written legislation to force the president to include the total dollar amount requested for each intelligence agency in his annual budget submission to Congress. The bill is called the Intelligence Budget Transparency Act. Congressmember Peter Welch joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressman. Can you talk about just what this act would make transparent?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, pretty basic information—how much of taxpayer money is being spent on intelligence-gathering activities, the top line number. You know, there’s not just the NSA and the CIA; we have like 17 different intelligence-gathering agencies. And those budgets have exploded. They’re up over 50 percent, even as, as pointed out, the National Institute of Health, that budget is down 22 percent. And if you are going to have any oversight whatsoever, you have to know what the budget is. And in fact, the 9/11 Commission advocated this. You know, somebody with solid credentials on national security, Lee Hamilton, is a strong proponent of letting the taxpayers know how much is being spent. You know, think about it. If you had 16 different government agencies administering the food stamp program on a secret budget, how would you know where they were stumbling into each other, where they were coordinating or not coordinating, where they were duplicating? So this is basic information that’s the beginning of congressional oversight and accountability in the intelligence community.

AARON MATÉ: And, Congressmember, you’ve also called for ending the gag order on private companies in terms of their role in disclosing private information. Can you detail that for us?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, sure. You know, these telephone companies, through the FISA court, have been being required to turn over information that their customers think was private. And they’re under a gag order, so they can’t disclose what the government is seeking. So what you have, essentially, with the expansion of the FISA court definition of what is acceptable for the intelligence agencies to do, is private companies with private information on you and me being required to turn that over in secret. So, what we want to do is end the gag order. If AT&T or Verizon is requested to turn over information, they should be able to disclose that, so then there’s an open and public debate about the limits on intelligence gathering.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip right now. This is a comment that was made during a recent TED Talk by the deputy director of National Security Agency, Richard Ledgett, who said Congress had authorized the NSA’s various programs.

RICHARD LEDGETT: It’s important to know that the programs that we’re talking about were all authorized by two different presidents, two different political parties, by Congress twice and by federal judges 16 different times. And so, it’s not a—this is not NSA running off and doing its own things. This is a legitimate activity of the United States foreign government that was agreed to by all the branches of the United States government. And President Madison would have been proud.

CHRIS ANDERSON: And yet, when congressmen discovered what was actually being done with that authorization, many of them were completely shocked. Or do you think that that is not a legitimate reaction, that it’s only because it’s now come out publicly, that they really knew exactly what you were doing with the powers they had granted you?

RICHARD LEDGETT: So, I think Congress is a big body. There’s 535 of them. They—and they change out frequently—in the case of the House, every two years. And I think that the NSA provided all the relevant information to our oversight committees, and then the dissemination of that information by the oversight committees throughout Congress is something that they manage. I think I would say that congressmembers had the opportunity to make themselves aware. And, in fact, a significant number of them, the ones who are assigned oversight responsibility, did have this ability to do that. And you’ve actually had the chairs of those committees say that in public.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the deputy director of the NSA, Richard Ledgett, talking about Congress authorizing what the NSA has done. Congressmember Welch, would you agree with what he’s saying?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, you know, it’s idiotic, what he just said. It’s extraordinarily disrespectful of the Constitution and extraordinarily disrespectful of the privacy rights of the American citizens. Here’s why. Jim Sensenbrenner was a conservative Republican who helped write the law. In what he—and he’s appalled by the overreach of the intelligence-gathering agencies and the NSA. And here’s why. There was, in the law, the right to go to the FISA court on the basis of reasonable suspicion to examine, let’s say, my phone records; there was some articulable suspicion that passed the judgment test of the judge in FISA, and you could get my records. What NSA has done is said that they can get everybody’s, all Americans’ emails, texts and telephone messages—all of them—just on the basis of the law in this authorization. That is like so overbroad and so disrespectful that there’s no end to what they can do.

The second point is that it may be that some of the Intelligence Committee members had access to this information, but the American people didn’t have access to this information, that there was this new NSA policy, which was essentially authorizing a dragnet of all of our emails and telephone records. So, that’s just, I think, an incredible self-serving stretch that shows an appalling disrespect to the Constitution and the reasonable limits that have to be part of a balance of security and privacy.

AARON MATÉ: And, Congressmember, you’ve written a letter to President Obama co-authored by Lee Hamilton, so you have some bipartisan action on this. How important is it to you, and how significant is it to you, that you’ve gotten Republicans to join you in this call for transparency?

REP. PETER WELCH: It’s incredibly important. We’re not going to get important things done here unless there’s people on both sides. And what this reflects—Cynthia Lummis is a solid person who’s got a lot of pretty hard tea party credentials. She cares about the Constitution. She cares about privacy rights. She cares about security. And in our coalition, you’re seeing left to right, who all say there’s got to be security, but we’ve got to protect the constitutional rights of the American citizens.

The second thing is that all of us know you just can’t give a blank check to any agency. You know, the intelligence-gathering agencies obviously had an opportunity, and a necessary, to get more money after 9/11. But at a certain point, you’ve got to step back and kick the tires. Are they doing a good job? Are they duplicating? Are they getting value for the money that the taxpayers are giving them? They are not immune to oversight just because they’re doing something that’s important, any more than any other governmental agency is, has been. By the way, you know, the intelligence-gathering agencies have blown it on a lot of occasions. It’s not as though the fact that they do important work means that they always do it well. They got it wrong on weapons of mass destruction. They were involved in toppling democratically elected leaders, like in Guatemala and even in Iran. I mean, this is not an organization that has 20/20 vision most of the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Welch, do you believe that Edward Snowden should be allowed back into the United States and should not be charged with treason as the White House is pushing for, though we know there’s a debate inside the White House?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, it’s a—you know, it’s a pretty tough call. A lot of the information that Mr. Snowden revealed is information I believe that we should have had, like, for instance, on this dragnet surveillance. The American people, that should have been disclosed to us, because that’s a policy debate. So, in that sense, getting that information out, I am glad that we know that. On the other hand, the indications are that there was an enormous data dump by Mr. Snowden that may include things that we have no business knowing. And I just don’t know what the story is on the full picture, so I’m undecided on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe he’s a whistleblower?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, part—you know, the definition of whistleblower is you’re disclosing some information that the public has a right to know. So, my view on the aspect of it where there was this wholesale dragnet of our information, that sort of fits into that category. Some of the other information that he’s disclosed may be state secrets. That, I don’t know, and that could be in a different category. So I’m not sure it’s a one-size-fits-all with Mr. Snowden.

AARON MATÉ: Congressmember, on Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case that challenged bulk surveillance, an appeal of the ruling back from last year that basically called bulk collection “almost Orwellian.” Your stance on this program and where you think this goes now, now that it goes back to the appeals court?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, I think it is almost Orwellian. I mean, there’s two things about it. Number one, the getting all of our information in the hands of a governmental agency, where we have no idea how it’s going to be used, history suggests that absolute power corrupts. And we can anticipate that somewhere, sometime, some president—a Nixon or whoever—is going to use, abuse that information. So, I do have a real objection to it. Secondly, I think it really interferes with good intelligence gathering, because it becomes like an agency that is getting so much information, in effect, it’s creating haystacks in order to search for needles. The hard work of intelligence has to be to follow the leads, to develop them, and not just to have access to all information on everybody in the world when you don’t have an identifiable target that you’re following, a trail that you’re—or leads that you’re following.

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