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Maine's U.S. Senators: Intelligence Committee Faces Delicate Balancing Act
08/23/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

Twice a week, when Congress is meeting, Maine's two senators join colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee in a room specially constructed to keep their conversations private. It has been a dozen years since both senators from a state have served on the committee. Members hear some of the most sensitive national security information, and provide oversight of the nation's myriad of intelligence agencies. As Mal Leary reports, both Maine senators say that those intelligence agencies need to do a better job of balancing security with the privacy rights of Americans.

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Most federal agencies face scrutiny from several congressional committees, but the nation's intelligence agencies are different: Their budgets are mostly secret, and their operations are subject to oversight only by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

"The Department of Commerce: You know, you have the press, and you have interest groups and you have public hearings and all of that - and the Congress," King says. "But the Intelligence is in a unique situation where nobody else is watching."

Independent Sen. Angus King says it's an awesome responsibility to serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he finds that his duties take up more time than his service on the Armed Services Committee and the Senate Budget Committee combined. "It really struck me that this is an extraordinary responsibility."

King says there are provisions in the Patriot Act that he supports but others need changing to better protect privacy rights. He says it is difficult to balance the competing provisions of the Constitution, and those discussions are underway.

Both senators say Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contract analyst, has damaged United States security efforts by leaking documents on how some of the nation's security programs work.

"I didn't vote for the Patriot Act and all of these things because I wasn't there," King says. "But I having been living this all of this winter, and then of course the Snowden thing broke. And it is a constant effort to balance national security and our right to privacy."

Sen. Susan Collins agrees. She says even her work on the Senate Appropriations Committee takes less time than the mostly closed meetings of the Intelligence Committee. She says panel members ask tough, and often blunt, questions.

"Since we are dealing with highly classified information that is not made available to the public, for the most part, it's incumbent upon us to ask the tough questions, to make sure that we are safeguarding the civil liberties and privacy of American citizens," Collins says.

While limited in what she can say about those programs, Collins says some of Snowden's claims that have received wide publicity are not true.

"For example, one that I can tell you that he said that is absolutely untrue is that he had the ability to wiretap any American's phone conversation, or get into any American's email - that is simply not true," Collins says.

King says the Intelligence Committee is constantly trying to reach the right balance between protecting the nation and preserving the privacy rights of individuals. He says some allegations about the sweeping nature of intelligence gathering are over the top.

"I don't think it is as bad as some people think - that we are somehow being snooped up on and surveilled and watched all the time," King says. "And I do think, from my work on the committee - I don't think, I know - that there are people out there that want to kill us."

Legislation re-authorizing provisions of the national security laws will be up for consideration when Congress returns to work next month. King says issues surrounding the need for warrants for cell phone records and emails are certain to be discussed. Collins says the current laws can be improved, and the committee will try to do that.

"There are lots of checks and balances in the programs, but that does not mean that we shouldn't look at whether there should be more," Collins says, "and that is what we are doing right now."

Both senators agree the most frustrating aspect of serving on the Intelligence Committee is attending a briefing where classified information is discussed, being cautioned not to talk about the information publicly, only to read about much of it in a newspaper a day or two later. Both say they would like to provide context and clarity in those cases, but are prevented from doing so by existing law.



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