Dianne Feinstein Gives NSA Apologist Ben Wittes More “Oversight” Time than Ron Wyden

Screen shot 2013-09-26 at 5.01.04 PMThe Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on NSA changes just finished.

It was about what you’d expect: Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss claimed they were making changes that don’t amount to much, at least four Senators filibustered themselves so they wouldn’t have to ask any questions (and therefore betray ignorance).

And of course, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall tried to ask questions.

The problem is, Dianne Feinstein had already deviated from normal Senate policy by giving Senators just 5 minutes to ask questions (that is the practice in the House, which is why House hearings are so much more stupid than Senate ones, generally).

Which meant that when Ron Wyden asked his first question — about geolocation — General Keith Alexander knew he could filibuster. As he did.

Now with respect to questions, let me start with you Director Alexander, and, as you all know, I will notify you in advance so that there won’t be any surprise about the types of issues we are going to get into. And Director Alexander, Senators Udall, Heinrich and I and about two dozen other senators have asked in the past whether the NSA has ever collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information in bulk. What would be your response to that?

Gen. Keith Alexander (Alexander): Senator, on July 25, Director Clapper provided a non-classified written response to this question amongst others, as well as a classified supplement with additional detail. Allow me to reaffirm what was stated in that unclassified response. Under section 215, NSA is not receiving cell-site location data and has no current plans to do so. As you know, I indicated to this committee on October 20, 2011, that I would notify Congress of NSA’s intent to obtain cell-site location data prior to any such plans being put in place. As you may also be aware, —

Wyden: General, if I might. I think we’re all familiar with it. That’s not the question I’m asking. Respectfully, I’m asking, has the NSA ever collected or ever made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information. That was the question and we, respectfully General, have still not gotten an answer to it. Could you give me an answer to that?

Alexander: We did. We sent that — as you’re also aware I expressly reaffirmed this commitment to the committee on June 25, 2013. Finally, in the most recent and now declassified opinion renewing this program, the FISA court made clear in footnote number five that notice to the court in a briefing would be required if the government were to seek production of cell-site location information as part of the bulk production of call detail records. Additional details were also provided in the classified supplement to Director Clapper’s July 25th response to this question. So what I don’t want to do, Senator, is put out in an unclassified forum anything that’s classified there so I’m reading to you exactly. So we sent both of these to you. I saw what Director Clapper sent and I agree with it.

Wyden: General, if you’re responding to my question by not answering it because you think that’s a classified matter that is certainly your right. We will continue to explore that because I believe this is something the American people have a right to know whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell-site information. I understand your answer. I’ll have additional questions on the next round. Thank you, Madam Chair. [my emphasis]

Wyden deferred his further questions to the second round.

But when the first round ended, DiFi said they didn’t have time for a second one, because they had to move onto the two non-governmental witnesses, Ben Wittes and Tim Edgar. Wyden tried to just ask his questions quickly, but Susan Collins objected.

Wittes — who recently admitted that he is an NSA apologist, according to the dictionary definition of the term — had an unfettered (and unsworn) opportunity to read his statement, which seemed to take up far more than the 5 minutes Wyden got to exercise oversight (the entire statement, with admittedly long footnotes, was 13 pages, though I’m not certain he read it all).

Effectively, then, Wittes’ mere presence served as a means to silence people asking real questions about NSA. DiFi claimed she had invited James Clapper and Keith Alexander to set the facts straight, but then made sure they’d be able to filibuster any effort to liberate a stray fact or two.

Next time he accuses Congress of being NAKED!, I do hope he remembers that his very presence has been used to prevent elected members of Congress from asking the questions Wittes is so sure the government is forthcoming in answering.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    I’ve yet to figure out why Senator Diane Feinstein held this open hearing (when almost all SSCI hearings are closed and classified) that was so obviously biased in the US government’s favor, and was meant to be seen as obviously biased.

    I don’t believe that the primary reason was to conduct a national PR campaign for the NSA since the effort was such small potatoes (in PR terms), was attended by very few SSCI members, and from what CSPAN showed, even fewer of the press and general public.

    And Diane Feinstein would be one of the last people anyone would choose to be an effective face of such a national PR campaign. Clapper and Alexander would be close seconds. I also don’t see it as much of an effective inside-the-beltway PR campaign either. Feinstein is no more convincing in the role of changing other Senators’ minds than she is as a national PR spokesperson.

    So something else was going on here, but I don’t yet know what it was.

  2. joanneleon says:

    Dude, an apologist *is* an “active defender”.

    a·pol·o·gist [uh-pol-uh-jist]
    a person who makes a defense in speech or writing of a belief, idea, etc.

    I see the same kind of thing at another blog. The biggest apologists are very offended by the word “apologist”. In fact, a whole group of them are so freaked about it that they want to ban the use of the word on that blog and they say they will troll rate people who use the word.

    Anyway, I saw some things in that hearing that I’ve never seen before — all of them from Dianne Feinstein. First, the ridiculous format, giving Senators on a key committee, a complex subject, some really serious shit going down, and she gives them each five minutes and then denies them a second round. Then the way she kept interrupting her witness, Tim Edgar, and reading a prepared rebuttal to the points she disagreed with… wtf? It looked like Keith Alexander had read the prepared testimony and objected to those points and had given her corrections/defenses to read. Seriously, it would not surprise me if that’s how it went down. Then finally when he said something that was not on the prepared statement that he had submitted, she was all bent out of shape about that too. I’ve just never seen that before. It was a bizarre hearing.

    Oh, and one more thing. For anyone who didn’t see the hearing, you have to watch the beginning of Benjamin Wittes’ testimony. He could hardly contain himself, he was so excited to be the NSA’s BFF and to be at that hearing. I think maybe he got to sit in Keith Alexander’s Star Trek chair or something.

  3. joanneleon says:

    @Snoopdido: A week or so ago, Jesselyn Radack suggested that maybe it was scheduled to purposely conflict with the Church Committee panel that was held on Tuesday at GW Law.

    As it turns out, Tuesday’s SSCI meeting was a closed hearing. I don’t know if DiFi changed the meeting from open to closed and then scheduled the open meeting for Thursday or what. But that was the guess at the time. And I do think that they decided to give Alexander a platform today because he’s been on a PR campaign, judging by his speech yesterday at the cybersecurity summit and his recent letter to NSA families. I think that he thinks he’s in trouble.

    #SSCI open hearing on #FISA legislation 9/24, Hart Bldg 216, 2:00pm. http://t.co/tq7qOXhcer #Trying to beat Judiciary to the punch?— Jesselyn Radack (@JesselynRadack) September 19, 2013

  4. Snoopdido says:

    @joanneleon: Interesting, but based on what I saw on CSPAN, I can’t imagine that anyone was impressed by today’s hearing.

    If the NSA apologists (the Obama Administration, Feinstein, Wittes, et al.) for any reason thought they were making progress in restoring the NSA’s good name (if it ever had one), they are sadly mistaken. All of the opinion polls have consistently shown that the American public isn’t buying any of it.

    Again, just what was the purpose of this hearing? There must have been one, but what it was I still don’t know.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: Agree. The hearing was pretty good evidence things are fucked. And that’s before I prove that DiFi misunderstood the 2011 violations she claims to understand.

  6. orionATL says:


    unlike you, i too think this is clearly the beginning of a carefully worked-out p.r. campaign.

    just as with ted cruz’s filibuster, no target, save reporters, has to watch c-span for the p.r. effort to be successful in the future.

    sen diane f. (d-mic) provides the public platform.

    gens. clapper and alexander go thru a song and dance, very likely with scripted, co-ordinated questions from friendly overseers.

    senators/overseers who might contradict the agreed-upon script (wyden) are toyed with by alexander and suppressed by chairman f.

    the payoff?

    read tommorrow’s headlines and get back to me.

    listen to sunday political teevee gossip shows (i can’t stand to), and get back to me.

    watch for planted articles in favorable or we-must-be-fair-newspapers and sunday magazines.

    and, always, watch for a continuous flow of

    – alarming news about threats we face (the chinese are coming, the chinese are coming)

    in conjunction with

    – feel-good news about all the security-protecting accomplishments of the nsa (did you happen to notice that nsa just took credit for a tiny, tail-end accomplishment related to the boston bombing (looking up accomplices)?).

    these guys have been caught selling security smoke AND engaging in highly unconstitutional activities.

    now there’s great need for a whitewash. the just initiated nsa/whitehouse p.r. campaign will be a big part of that whitewash.

    did you notice how nicely the wittes drivel ew tackled earlier this week matched the tenor of the remarks –

    just a few good nsa men carefully following all the rules, trying their damnest to protect the nation, who are being pestered by ignorant-of-the-facts, suppicious, probably aq-loving, reporters, politicians, criminals, misfits and ingrates.

  7. orionATL says:

    oh, and the president’s popularity has been affected by this faux-scandel; we definitely can’t have that.

  8. joanneleon says:

    @orionATL: re: PR hearing. We’re talking about Keith Alexander here and I don’t think he is a particularly rational actor. It’s a coincidence that Ben Wittes quote appear in a letter to NSA families clearly trying to dredge up support and then Ben Wittes shows up as a very important witness in the Senate hearing to talk about how great the NSA is and how we should have no concerns about their super good auditing and reporting procedures?

    Alexander is a very powerful man. He’s running the show with all of this. It’s pretty clear that he’s very determined to counter the media. He’s hardly getting any support from anywhere so he has to try to generate some positive media coverage.

  9. orionATL says:


    i see it the same way.

    nsa has been a little slow organizing their campaign probably because they have rarely been challenged publicly in a way they couldn’t bs their way thru.

    it would be extraordinary to me if nsa/whitehouse failed to do what treasury, dod, state, dhs, just to mention the big boys, would do if caught in an embarrassment.

    in any event, this is a testable hypothesis which the future will reveal or no.

  10. J.G. Sandom says:

    Excellent post, Marcy. Makes me proud to be an Amherst grad! Shows how Senator Feinstein—instead of encouraging debate and its own members to speak freely—moves to cut off anything that doesn’t support her own political position. No wonder the NSA is running roughshod over the 4th Amendment. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is not only failing to deliver Congressional oversight, but, under Feinstein and Chambliss, it actively works to abrogate our Constitutional rights. (www.jgsandom.com)

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