Heck: Intelligence oversight details easy to get for House members

A member of the House Intelligence Committee said Tuesday there is plenty of information about government snooping methods to provide effective oversight despite complaints from others in Congress who accuse the committee of withholding basic information about widespread spying tactics.

Rep. Joe Heck., R-Nev., said the committee holds briefings in secure areas that are open to members of Congress who want to learn more about programs that involve surveillance of Americans’ phone calls, email and Internet use.

“Those members need to avail themselves of the procedures and protocols in place to avail themselves of that information,” Heck said. “And stop complaining about the letters that they write that don’t give them access.”

The Intelligence Committee on which Heck serves oversees surveillance programs operated by the National Security Agency. The programs have been under fire since earlier this summer when former defense contractor Edward Snowden leaked information that not only exposed the breadth of intelligence gathering but also thousands of instances of unlawful surveillance.

In response to the controversy, Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced an amendment to a defense bill that would have limited data collection to people who are the subject of an investigation. It failed by vote of 205-217.

At the time Heck said members who voted in favor of the new limits made a “knee jerk” decision and should have taken more time to learn about the programs before voting.

A short time later, however, Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., and Alan Grayson, D-Fla., said they sought information about the programs but were rebuffed.

“How can I responsibly vote on a program I know very little about,” Griffith told Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who got the information from Snowden that exposed the programs to public scrutiny.

But Heck said the other members could have gotten information if they would have attended briefings held in private rooms and agreed to prohibitions on disseminating classified information.

“All they have to do is show up,” Heck said in an interview at the Review-Journal. “As you would imagine, the information is highly sensitive, it is not going to be released outside of the Intelligence Committee spaces, it is secured information.”

Others, however, have said the restrictions surrounding the briefings are so tight it is difficult for members of Congress to glean information they need to make informed decisions about how to legislate the programs.

“Generally, when they provide the information, you can only go to a secured room to see it. None of your staffers can go. … You can’t take notes,” said Jennifer Stisa Granick, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. “It makes it nearly impossible to actually deliberate.”

Heck also defended the authorized process available to people who want to report illegal or abusive activities by government officials, something he said Snowden should have followed instead of giving information to the press.

Heck said an inspector general responsible for investigating wrongdoing in the intelligence agencies could have addressed whatever problems Snowden exposed publicly.

“There is a chain of command; use it,” Heck said. “If the chain of command fails you, there are other avenues.”

Heck said he believes the problems would have been addressed, albeit less publicly, had Snowden reported them internally.

But whistle-blowers have encountered troubles.

On Tuesday the Washington Post updated the story of former Army civilian worker Gina Gray who lost her job after reporting wrongdoing at Arlington National Cemetery, including misplaced graves, mishandled remains and financial mismanagement.

According to the Post, the Army’s inspector general recommended corrective action to compensate Gray, but Army Secretary John McHugh rejected the suggestion. Gray remains unemployed.

Granick said defenders of mass surveillance should be doing more to protect civil liberties, curb abuses and ensure protections for insiders who want to report wrongdoing.

“They just have this rhetoric they keep pushing,” she said of Heck and other program defenders. “They come up with these talking points and keep repeating them, and they are debunked, and they keep repeating them.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .