Congress is gearing up to investigate the NSA domestic surveillance program. That’s better than Congress doing nothing—but it doesn’t give much reason to cheer. The NSA program is only one of a recent series of disturbing revelations about the Administration and the war on terror: detention of suspects with little or no process; secret prisons in Europe; people being hooded, stuffed in planes, and delivered to foreign governments; and, quite possibly, the use of torture.
If Congress is serious about checking Presidential powers, it needs to look far beyond what it already knows has taken place.
Rather than simply get to the bottom of domestic surveillance, Congress needs to get a better handle on what else the Administration is doing and plans to do in this war.
At this point, very little seems unimaginable. Are there, for instance, American citizens held secretly in this country or abroad? What kinds of interrogation techniques have American officials practiced and what are they trained to do? What plans are currently in place to get information from a captured suspect in the event of a ticking bomb? Are other agencies involved in spying without warrants? Have people been removed from the United States without a hearing? Under what circumstances are detainees denied counsel? Has the government asked anybody to give up U.S. citizenship in exchange for dismissing criminal charges?
Have family members of a suspect been taken into custody to exert pressure on the suspect? Has there been spying on leaders of political organizations or members of government? Who will be rounded up in the event of another attack? Is there a plan for martial law?
Congress has the resources to explore these kinds of issues. Congress might of course—and, to a large extent, it probably should—conduct its investigation without revealing what it finds to the general public.
But the bottom line is this: when all is said and done, history must show that whatever happened in the war on terror, Congress knew about it and gave approval.