In today's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing examining the "Current and Projected National Security Threats Against the United States," there was a mixed bag of comments from Senators ranging from praise to condemnation. Many Senators thanked the members of the intelligence community (IC) for their service and commitment to keep Americans safe while many also scolded certain intelligence practices.
Topics included Edward Snowden leaks, al-Qaeda, Syria, and cyber security to name a few. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in her opening remarks noted her concern for the nation's success at keeping attacks on the homeland at bay for these successes may falsely encourage individuals that terrorist threats have diminished, which she firmly asserted - they have not.
All witnesses maintained that the Snowden leaks not only damaged the security of the nation but also the security of troops and aid terrorist activity. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn stated the greatest unknown costs of the Snowden leaks are potentially American lives on the battlefield. CIA Director John Brennan stated terrorists are going to schools and studying leaked documents from the United States. Terrorists now have a better picture of how the United States conducts its intelligence against their organizations, which significantly damages the effectiveness of the United States IC.
Many of the witnesses at the hearing dodged pressing questions from Senators by asserting their answers to these questions would be better served at a classified briefing, upsetting lawmakers such as Martin Heinrich (D-NM). In a heated exchange, Heinrich voiced his disappointment with Brennan over the CIA's interrogation and detainment practices. When Brennan responded by stating he disagreed with Heinrich's assertion, Chairwoman Feinstein interjected noting this discussion would be more appropriate for a closed hearing.
The NSA's spying and metadata collection programs disclosed by Snowden have come under much scrutiny among lawmakers and concerned citizens for its Constitutionality. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) attacked this question of Constitutionality head on asking Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if he has worked with the Justice Department to ask for an expedited opinion from the Supreme Court on these programs and if there is a sense of urgency from the Obama administration on pursing this course of action. When Clapper responded that he did not know if there was a sense of urgency among the Obama administration, Mikulski sharply responded that "we need a Constitutional ruling on this. The American people are entitled to this."
The FBI's collection of records and intelligence gathering practices have also upset many Americans who claim they intrude on their privacy. Senator Angus King (I-ME) asked the FBI Director James Comey if the highly scrutinized Section 215 of the Patriot Act is effective or if it is just a "convenience." Comey responded that Section 215 affords the FBI great "agility" in threat assessment and attack response. Comey went on to state that it "allows us to do what would take an hour, in minutes." Section 215 allows the FBI to paint a clearer picture of an attack in a highly condensed time frame through avenues such as national security letters. In disasters, speed is of the utmost importance according to Comey.
It is clear through the annual threat assessment that the United States cannot let off the gas pedal in terms of combating terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, yet many lawmakers still believe there is a balance between security and liberty and Americans deserve transparency. As Matthew Olsen - Director of the National Terrorism Center - stated, smaller terrorist operations such as the attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate, are making tactical warnings difficult. All witnesses warn that terrorism is still a danger. It seems unlikely the IC will adhere to greater transparency aside from abiding by the guidelines set out by the president's January 17 speech. While American foreign ground wars are coming to a close, the War on Terror is not even close to concluding.