Members of Congress denied access to secrets they are entitled to know
It's no wonder that the NSA surveillance programs came as a big surprise to so many members of Congress.
A top member on the House Intelligence Committee suggested this week that it's easy for his colleagues to see classified documents.
"There's members of Congress who said they didn't know about [NSA surveillance programs]. They could have gotten a briefing whenever they wanted to," Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said Monday during an interview on Fox News Channel.
But that's not quite true, according to the former top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Former Intelligence Committee leaders Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said that just because a member asks for access doesn't mean that it will be granted.
Hoekstra said that House lawmakers must submit a formal request for access to certain information.
"The committee will have a business meeting, and the committee will have a vote as to whether they will allow a member of Congress who is not on the committee to have access to that data. And I would say, a significant number of those requests are typically denied," Hoekstra explained in an interview with The Hill.
The committee's ruling, Harman said, would depend on what type of information was requested.
"I don't want to give examples because these requests were all classified, but my instinct was to try and accommodate members," said Harman, who is now the head of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
The Intelligence Committee has long been "extremely protective" of its turf and the information it has access to, according to a source familiar with the panel.
The process is so closed that some frustrated rank-and-file members try to get information from other panels, such as the Armed Services or Foreign Affairs committees. Another option is to ask intelligence agencies from other countries while on congressional delegation trips.
The source added that members who wait for years to get on the Intelligence Committee love telling their colleagues, "I would tell you that, but it's classified."
It's nonsense for intel committee members to deny an elected representative access to this information. I have a feeling that if enough members had been made aware of PRISM and other NSA surveillance programs, they wouldn't be in place today.
But that was the point of keeping it from them. Maybe this will teach congressmen to insist on being infromed when it comes to surveillance activities of the federal government.