Congress, Intelligence and Homeland Security
Thursday, May 25, 2006; 11:15 AM
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, was online Thursday, May 25, at 11:15 a.m. ET to discuss the nomination of General Michael V. Hayden to head the CIA, domestic surveillance and the NSA and other national security issues.
The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorist Risk Assessment meets Wednesday for a hearing entitled "Examining the Progress of the DHS Chief Intelligence Officer." Thompson has expressed his concern over the consequences of excessive government spying.
The transcript follows.
McLean, Va.: My concern with the NSA program derives from another of this administration's policies, the Patriot Act. At first, Bush championed the legislation as the best means with which to fight terrorism. However we see the administration using the Patriot Act to justify checking library records. Do you see the wire tapping program eventually being expanded if it is not challenged now?
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson: Thank you for your question. I think that whenever the public and Members of Congress are kept in the dark, there is always a risk that effective oversight won't be exercised. The NSA keeps saying that they are conducting business as usual legally, but I'm not so sure? The only way we can really know is for Congress to be kept in the loop FULLY with the opportunity to ask questions and get answers.
St. Mary's City, Md.: Regarding the NSA's possession of phone records, do you believe any government be trusted with this kind of personal information? In my view, the NSA's move won't make us any safer, and will offer the temptation for too many politicians to misuse the information for political purposes. I'm thinking primarily of Watergate and the Huston Plan, where anyone who dissented too strongly from Nixon policy was branded as "subversive." But any administration would be capable of that abuse of power. Do you share my concerns?
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson: Thank you for your question. I have always been an advocate for personal privacy, and I was also alarmed to learn from the news media about this apparent NSA domestic surveillance program. Homeland Security Democrats have invited the Bell Companies to come visit with our Members to discuss their involvement in this program. But I haven't been briefed by this Administration and am still waiting to hear back from the phone companies. Our Nation's security is most important to us all, but homeland security shouldn't be "carte blanche" for the President to do whatever he wants...in the name of security.
Rockville, Md.: If the general (and others) have assured us that their surveillance programs are legal, why do some question? From what I know about statistical analysis and communications theory, it seems very possible that they have managed to meet the letter of the law - if not its spirit.
Why are some so skeptical? How can they be informed without ruining the program?
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson: This is an excellent question. As Representatives in Congress, we are elected to serve our constituents in Washington. Part of our duty in Congress is to serve as a check and balance to the Executive Branch of government. When Congress has questions about government programs, they should be provided with answers quickly and fully. We have not yet received these answers and so it is not possible for me to know if this program is constitutional or in the best interests of the nation.
Merritt Island, Fla.: Is the domestic surveillance program indicative of a decline in the degree of Congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community? Was your Committee informed of the program?
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson: Yes and No. While the Committee on Homeland Security does not have oversight of the NSA and a number of other intelligence agencies, we do have oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and its intelligence shop. I want to make sure that the Department of Homeland Security, a consumer of intelligence products, is not receiving and using intelligence that was obtained illegally. Our Committee was not informed of this program, and I, like you, learned about this program from the papers.
Indianola, Miss.: Do you think rural and small communities have vulnerabilities that homeland security can address?
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson: Glad that you asked that. Being from a small town myself, I can tell you that homeland security is not exclusive to big cities.
A lot of our nation's critical infrastructure such as power plants, chemical facilities, telecommunications hubs, and rail systems are located in small and rural communities; all of these are potential terror targets.
While we must take care to ensure that our largest cities are protected with the resources they need, we must not neglect our smaller communities when it comes to homeland security.
Dale City, Va.: Thank you for taking our questions, Congressman. I think the reason so many of us are skeptical about the government collecting our data probably goes back to be "misled" so often by this administration. We were told there were WMD in Iraq, we were told Saddam and Al Qaida were working together, we were told that we never use torture, we were told that all phone call intercepts required a court order, we were told that the company running the ports had no say over the security in place. It seems an endless list. A bigger question is why we even keep trying to support our government.
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson: I agree with your concerns. And firmly believe that Homeland Security must include the American people as part of the solution, it must be a partnership. We've seen a disturbing pattern of lies and misrepresentations coming from the Bush Administration and if the public comes to distrust the government, they won't help it help them. We keep seeing an act now, ask later mentality from the Bush Administration, and that's not what Democracy is all about.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.
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