U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen doesn’t remember the National Security Agency and intelligence officials briefing Congress on their gathering of telephone and email records and the tracking of the communications of millions of American citizens. But he has his doubts because he says the agencies involved routinely lie.
“I don’t recall any of that and don’t believe that occurred,” Cohen said of claims by NSA leaders that they briefed members of Congress and Intelligence Committee leaders in classified briefings several times. The claims followed media reports and a leak by a former NSA employee that revealed publicly the gathering of the data.
“I thought that maybe Congress was asleep at the wheel and might should have known better,” Cohen said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
The program hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video, www.memphisdailynews.com.
Cohen, who was to be part of another classified briefing on the matter this week in Washington, said he has asked for the dates of the past briefings.
“They might have overstated their bounds on what they said,” he said. “One thing that you know about intelligence people is they don’t tell the truth. That’s their business is to lie.”
It’s an area the Memphis Democrat has been immersed in recently because of his role on the House Judiciary Committee.
Cohen recently returned from Russia as part of a congressional delegation investigating claims by Russian intelligence agencies that the FBI did not follow through on a pledge to provide them with information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia. Tsarnaev is one of the two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Cohen says Russian intelligence agency leaders he talked with claimed that FBI cooperation might have stopped the Boston bombings. Cohen also believes the Russian agencies might have wanted to kill Tsarnaev in Russia.
Cohen, who has opposed reauthorization of the Patriot Act that references such intelligence gathering as well as the judicial apparatus for such requests since he was elected to Congress in 2006, distinguished between spying on American citizens and gathering data on their phone calls and other communications.
“It is clear … that they are collecting data – metadata – the numbers and not the conversations and they are not looking at them unless there’s a connection to terrorism and they can make that connection,” Cohen said. “There is the potential for big brother listening and that is the problem.”
Cohen said he intends to propose changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that secretly hears requests for such warrants. He would let leaders of the House and the Senate appoint four members each to the 11-member panel. That would leave the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court with three appointments instead of appointing all 11 members of the FISA panel as he does currently.
Cohen also said FISA rulings should be public in some redacted form.
“They can’t give away classified information within those opinions and sometimes it’s hard to redact the information and still give the opinion,” he said. “But somehow this could be accomplished, I believe.”
During the 2012 general election campaign, Cohen predicted that once the presidential election was decided, tea party influence would wane either with President Barack Obama’s re-election or his defeat.
“The tea party is still a very strong element in the Republican Party,” Cohen said less than a year after the November re-election of Obama. “They’ve got certain members (of Congress) who would rather appeal to the tea party constituency than the (Republican House) Speaker (John Boehner). The speaker doesn’t have the ability to deal with them like the old speakers did through earmarks and other options.”
But Cohen said outside Congress, tea party Republicans are “toast.”
“I think the Republicans realize to have a president they are going to have to get beyond that constituency,” he said, predicting a move toward more moderate Republicans.
Cohen was also critical of his own party on the state level in particular.
“The reality is there’s not going to be a Democratic governor anytime soon or a Democratic United States senator anytime soon,” he said, adding the party isn’t picking “progressive” candidates that appeal to younger voters.
“The Democratic Party was really dominated by a group of people that got things done but they were ethically challenged,” Cohen said of his 24 years as part of the Democratic majority in the Tennessee Senate starting in the early 1980s. “And I think it left a scar on the party. They were a family. They kind of controlled things and kept things to themselves. It was like a mafia. … They didn’t leave a good taste in people’s mouths.”