Compare the level of effort Congress expended investigating Watergate and the other surveillance‐related scandals of the 1970s with that expended to date on Snowden’s revelations. In the Watergate era, Congress set up entire special committees with literally dozens of staff to investigate not only the Nixon White House but the entire U.S. intelligence community, the latter through the select committee chaired by then‐Senator Frank Church of Idaho (i.e., the Church Committee). Those investigations lasted years and included dozens of publicly televised hearings.
When the House Judiciary Committee considered the USA Freedom Act in May 2015—one of the few bills introduced in response to Snowden’s revelations—committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia claimed the committee had conducted “aggressive” oversight of the issue through a total of three hearings.
As ProPublica noted, Snowden exposed literally dozens of NSA programs and activities that have a direct impact on the constitutional rights of Americans living at home or abroad. The House Judiciary Committee’s three hearings did not even scratch the surface of those programs.
The Senate Judiciary Committee under then‐chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont conducted a worthwhile examination of government surveillance programs in March 2013. It stands out for its singular moment in which Senator Ron Wyden caught Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a falsehood about the scope of government surveillance against Americans. Snowden’s revelations helped highlight just how disingenuous Clapper and other U.S. intelligence community officials had been on the issue, not just with Congress but with the FISA court as well.
Yet none of those revelations moved the Senate to create a select committee to investigate the full scope of post‐9/11 surveillance programs, and the Senate Intelligence Committee has been far more a defender of these programs than an overseer of them. The House Intelligence Committee’s public record on this issue is also dismal, with only a single public hearing in the months after Snowden’s revelations that discussed almost purely cosmetic changes to U.S. surveillance authorities.
Indeed, when reform‐minded House members not on the House Intelligence Committee have attempted to get information on these programs, they have been blocked from doing so—including in periods leading up to PATRIOT Act reauthorization votes. House reformers have also been stymied in their efforts to rein in or even end dubious surveillance activities, largely through the efforts of the House GOP leadership to restrict the terms and scope of the surveillance reform debate.
The House has seen fit to create a select committee to investigate the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens—a singular, tragic event already investigated by the State Department and the House Armed Services Committee. However, it has refused to create such a select committee to investigate Snowden’s revelations, despite their magnitude and direct impact on the rights of Americans and the threat NSA’s actions pose for American technology companies. That’s a far cry from how the Watergate and Church Committees went about their business.
In the introduction to the Watergate Committee’s final report, the authors noted the critical role the committee’s open hearings had played in educating the public about the issues at stake: