Parsing One Old-School Senator’s Pause



Since media reports kicked off the NSA leaks case, everything has gone according to Washington’s usual scandal script.

Administration and agency officials have vigorously defended their actions. Lawmakers have loudly called for investigations, pointed fingers and taken sides — or attempted to position themselves somewhere in the middle. And political pundits and security “experts” have made the cable news show rounds and written pointed op-eds in print and online.

Well, everything has followed the typical script except for one thing: No senior official, in government or the private sector, has been fired. (Note: Yes, your correspondent realizes Booz Allen Hamilton canned the leaker, low-level IT guy Edward Snowden.)

Lawmakers largely have artfully dodged reporters’ questions about whether NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander or Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should be relieved of their commands in the wake of the public disclosure — not the existence of — highly classified intelligence community anti-terrorism programs that include reams of data about American citizens’ telephone calls and email traffic. But is paitence on Capitol Hill wearing thin as the NSA-Snowden scandal drags on?

For instance, Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has been sharply critical of Alexander and Clapper for potentially misleading the panel earlier this year about the existence of such programs. But Wyden continues to refuse to call either a liar, and has not called for either’s head.

Enter Sen. Carl Levin. The normally level-headed Michigan Democrat was asked Tuesday whether he thinks Alexander should receive the D.C. heave-ho as a result of the telephone and email surveillance programs being outed.

After covering Levin for nearly a decade, this correspondent expected the media-savvy Senate Armed Services Committee chairman to issue a quick “No” or a full-throated endorsement of the NSA boss.

Instead, a very curious thing happened. To say Levin hesitated would be inaccurate. Carl Levin is from Washington’s Old School. Hesitation is for freshman House members. Levin is a veteran. He’s measured. He’s blunt, yet calculated.

No, Levin didn’t hesitate. Rather, he paused for a few seconds. He briefly mulled. He finally spoke. But the few seconds of silence were more tantalizing — and, perhaps, telling — than his words.

“I don’t have a reduced level of confidence because of these events,” Levin said, which he repeated when asked about Clapper.

It appears Alexander and Clapper are safe. But the longer Snowden is hold up in a Russian airport’s customs transit lounge, the longer lawmakers are pausing when asked about the entire NSA situation and what should be done about it. Will lawmakers lose their patience and demand a senior intel official be dismissed over the Snowden case?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett