Transcript of Wilson interview at US Capitol
REP. WILSON: Good afternoon. I'm Congresswoman Heather Wilson from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am the chair of the Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
In the United States, we have the good fortune of having gone for four-and-a-half years without another terrorist attack on our soil, and the reason for that really boils down to two things: the courage of our soldiers and the quality of our intelligence. It's the quality of our intelligence which will keep us safe going into the future.
The president and the members of Congress I believe share the same goal -- we want to keep America safe and free. Our responsibilities under the Constitution are different, however.
The president is the commander in chief of the military. He executes the laws and he administers the programs. In the Congress, we authorize programs, we set up agencies, we appropriate funds, and we oversee the execution of programs. Those are very different roles under our Constitution, but that constitutional structure has kept us safe and free and the strongest country in the world for a very long time.
This morning, the White House agreed just before lunchtime to give the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence more extensive information on the program the president has acknowledged exists. This is a very positive development. Serious questioning, sharing of information and review of this program began this afternoon and will go on further into the afternoon. I believe, as I have believed all along, we have to start from the facts, and the place to get those facts is in the House Intelligence Committee. The checks and balances in our system of government are very important, and it's those checks and balances that are going on and being executed now.
At the same time, things are changing. Technology is changing, and we have to keep up and keep pace with that technology to make sure our intelligence agencies have the tools they need to keep us safe.
Now I was thinking about it; the FISA Act was passed in 1978. And while there have been some updates to the FISA law, it's a pretty old statute.
In 1978, I graduated from high school and went to the Air Force Academy and was issued a slide rule, and it was the first class to actually get issued a handheld calculator.
In 1978, telephones hung on the wall, and the words "cell phone" and "Internet" were not even in the dictionary.
We need to make sure that our statute keeps pace with technology so that our intelligence agencies have the ability to do their job and keep us safe. Our committee, the Intelligence Committee, will review the FISA Act, look at what needs to be updated, and introduce legislation to make changes.
With that, I think all of you have my statement, and I'd be happy to answer your questions.
Q Congresswoman, can you just clarify, then, are the briefings that are going on right now including operational details of the program as well as the legal basis for it?
REP. WILSON: The afternoon was intended to be just about the legal basis. And of course, the attorney general did eight hours of testimony in the Senate. Just before lunchtime, the White House expanded the scope of that briefing to include matters -- operational matters.
Q And are you satisfied with the nature of the information that you've received so far?
REP. WILSON: We are beginning this process and this inquiry. It's going on further this afternoon, and I think there will be subsequent briefings, questions and so forth. But thus far, General Hayden and Attorney General Gonzales are being very forthcoming and very helpful.
Q I recognize that this is very preliminary and that there are constraints on what you can say, but is there anything that you feel comfortable saying as to whether you -- how valuable or appropriate you feel that this program is at the present time?
REP. WILSON: I don't -- I think we're too early. These briefings just began this afternoon.
Q On a legal basis, with no regard to operational matters -- just on a legal basis -- do you agree with Chairman Specter that this program is not legal?
REP. WILSON: I always start from the facts in finding out exactly what is being done and how it is being done. I think the attorney general makes a case, as he did in front of the Senate, that -- what their legal arguments are. There are questions about and argument about that. I tend to focus on starting out with exactly what is going on here and then proceeding from there.
And so I'm not -- I'm not at a point where I can make a conclusion yet.
Q It sounds like, when you're talking about overhauling the FISA act, that you want to be in a situation to write legislation that would legalize what they've been doing.
REP. WILSON: It's interesting, having for the last 51 days not been briefed into this program -- we used to, when I was on the National -- I've had some form of security clearance since I was 17 years old, for all but three years. When I was on the National Security Council staff, we used to have a joke that when you're in government, the problem with being in government is you lose the access to the unclassified sources. When you're not briefed into the program, as I haven't been for the last 51 days, you read very carefully what is being said in the unclassified sources.
And I've had the opportunity over the last 51 days to really get into the FISA statute, and I think there are things there that need updating. I also serve on the Telecommunications Committee on Energy and Commerce, and so I'm quite familiar with the revolution in telecommunications and the direction in both the volume, the variety and the velocity of telecommunications. So I see this from two perspectives. And it's really that that has driven my concern about the FISA statute.
Q Is this information that you've received so far today equal to what the "Gang of Eight" received over the past three to four years, or do they still, in essence, have more information than the committee does?
REP. WILSON: The briefings have just started, so obviously, I think certainly in quantity and time, they have more information. And there are more questions that we have. There are reasons, and it's certainly allowed in the law, for there to be Gang-of-Eight discussions. There are real reasons to limit some information to an even smaller group than the House Intelligence Committee. I did not think that those reasons continue to exist for the program the president has acknowledged.
Now, there may be some particular aspects or some technical questions that they feel they don't want to go into detail even with me. We'll take those on a case-by-case kind of basis. Q And based on what you heard today, is it possible then to fix the FISA law so that it addresses those points that you became aware of?
REP. WILSON: I don't know yet. As I said, we're only two hours into this review at this point.
Q Did the attorney general ever respond to your letter at all from December 18th? Did you ever get an answer?
REP. WILSON: There was no written response. I think the response started at 1:00 this afternoon.
Q You're in a tough reelection fight. And there have been rumors and words that the White House -- Karl Rove in particular -- had sent a signal that Republicans who crossed the White House on the NSA issue may face some sort of retribution. In giving your interview to The New York Times and the subsequent 24 hours, have you faced any of that, quote, "retribution"?
REP. WILSON: No.
Q Does it have any implications on your race?
REP. WILSON: No. All of us who were elected to the Congress, and particularly those of us who were asked to serve on this very special committee, have a duty. That duty is under the Constitution. And that duty is much more important than anything that has to do with elections.
Q It's been pointed out to you, you -- you took a similar stance on Abu Ghraib, and yet when the Democrats had a resolution to call for an independent investigation, you voted against it. Is this going to wind up in a similar vein, where you wind up supporting the administration position on this?
REP. WILSON: That vote was -- we can go into the details of that vote and why I thought it was different. I think we've had a tremendous impact today. And I don't think the White House would have made the decision that it did had I not stood up and said you must brief the Intelligence Committee.
Q Do you know if the White House intends to have the same briefing with your colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee?
REP. WILSON: I don't know.
Q Do you have -- that hasn't come up.
REP. WILSON: No.
Q Do you have any idea the White House agreed to brief the House first, and -- and not the Senate? REP. WILSON: We had a scheduled briefing this afternoon at 1:00 on the legal aspects, which is analogous to what happened in the Judiciary Committee of the Senate earlier this week. That -- the content of that briefing and the extent of that briefing was changed. So Intelligence Committee members already were here. We came back to Washington early for that briefing on the legal aspects. And late this morning the White House expanded the content of that briefing and agreed to brief the Intelligence Committee.
Q Are you saying that they have other questions that they have refused to answer so far? Have they set up limits as to what questions that they'll want to take even on the matters they say the briefing's about?
REP. WILSON: At this point, I think -- you know, there are some operational issues that they still don't want to go into in detail. But this is very early on. We're really just getting the full committee briefed on this program, so this is the beginning of serious questioning and engagement, and I commend the White House for its decision to come up here and involve the people in the forum that -- where it should be.
Q If they shut you out of important details, will you feel free to go public?
REP. WILSON: Say that again?
Q If they shut you out of important information, if they refuse to provide information you feel it is important for the committee to ask, will you feel free to go public?
REP. WILSON: I have said publicly today what I've said privately over the last 51 days, that they need to brief the intelligence committees. I have an obligation, though, to the country not to compromise national security, all right? One of the liberties that I had before 1:00 this afternoon is that it's impossible to compromise a program that I'm not briefed into. That has now changed somewhat, and so I have to be a little bit more careful.
Q But it would not compromise national security for you to say, they're not giving us the information you feel the committee is entitled to have?
REP. WILSON: That's correct.
Q Can you talk about -- you said you feel that you standing up has changed what's happened today and the information the Intelligence Committee is getting. Can you talk about your -- I don't know if negotiations is the right word, but your communications with and from the White House in the last few days that you think may have led to this?
REP. WILSON: The White House called in mid-morning this morning and said -- and talked to my staff. I've actually been upstairs in budget hearings all day. But -- said that they were willing to expand the briefing schedule this afternoon, and they called the Intelligence Committee just before lunchtime and expanded the scope of the briefing and those who were going to briefed in.
Q Have you been talking with them, I guess in the last two days, or was it the interview in The New York Times that was sort of the most recent statement from you to the White House?
REP. WILSON: We've been communicating over the last, as I said, 51 days with the administration at various points in the administration.
And until this morning, they were reluctant to brief beyond the Gang of 8. I think my willingness to publicly say that they really needed to had an impact.
Q Did you talk to the chairman of the committee prior to the story in today's Times? And what kind of feedback did he give you?
REP. WILSON: Chairman Hoekstra and I have a very good relationship, and yes, we talk all the time.
Q Did he -- was he supportive of what you're saying and the direction you want to go?
REP. WILSON: He's absolutely supportive of the review of FISA. I think -- I admire his leadership and that he listens. At the same time, he is a little bit in a slightly difficult position because he has been briefed into this program, and there are provisions in the statute for just the Gang of 8 to be briefed, not just on covert action, but on other sensitive intelligence matters. And he understood my feeling, I think.
Q The Republican National Committee has made clear that they think this actually could be -- defending this program can be a winning issue for Republicans and then attack Democrats who question the program are basically saying that they're not standing up to Osama bin Laden. Do you think this is a legitimate political issue?
REP. WILSON: I guess I don't see it as a political issue, and maybe I'm just -- I have a job to do, and I have to start out from the facts. The job has to be done in the intelligence committees of the Congress. That's where I focus, and I guess I don't look at this as a partisan issue.
It's interesting the intensity of the questions in our -- one of the great things about the Intelligence Committee is that we don't have the C-SPAN effect, and a lot of what we do up here on Capitol Hill is set piece queuings for the cameras. We don't do that in the Intelligence Committee. It's a very serious, substantive group of people. We ask tough questions, and the tough questions come from both sides of the aisle.
So I think our committee does good work, and we should do that work. Q Congresswoman, are there plans to visit NSA and speak with employees there?
REP. WILSON: I think there will be follow-up discussions. I've been to NSA a number of times. The National Security Agency is under the purview of my subcommittee, and we have not scoped out exactly how we will pursue this from here. But I would expect to go out to NSA some time in the near future.
Q (Off mike.)
REP. WILSON: Yes.
REP. WILSON: There was a couple last questions.
Q Congresswoman, I'm sorry if you've already answered this. Can you talk about the specific problems you see with FISA, and if your mind was changed at all by what you've learned this afternoon in the briefing?
REP. WILSON: I don't think that we've gotten to the point of understanding anything further from this afternoon.
I think we're still very early on this particular program.
But with respect to FISA , there are a number of things that start to come up. One is, exactly what is electronic surveillance? Exactly who are U.S. persons? How do these systems work internally? And one of the things that the attorney general testified to in the Senate in open session was just how laborious it is to get a FISA application put together, the actual packet of information. Well, why is that? What is the system internally? And why is that difficult? And is it -- should it be that difficult?
So there are questions there internal to how FISA operates. How long should a FISA warrant be in place before it has to be renewed?
So I think those are a lot of questions that have come up just through reading the open sources.
Q Speaking of open sources, you said you read the open sources, very carefully, through 51 days.
REP. WILSON: Yeah.
Q Realizing that you're only two hours in, would you say that you were surprised by anything that you learned post-open source?
REP. WILSON: One of the things that's difficult in this work is that there are -- it is very common for there to be inaccuracies about -- not about, you know, the legal arguments, as the attorney general testified to them earlier, in open session this week, but to the actual intelligence programs themselves. And that's the nature of what you're trying to cover.
But the flip side of that is that those people who were responsible for the programs cannot make corrections about them. And that's the situation I'm now in.
Q It has been argued that the program stopped terrorists or prevented terrorist attacks in the United States. There have been other reports that suggested that most of the -- what was discovered proved to be dead ends. Can you just -- do you have a view at this point in time whether this program was effective in countering terrorism?
REP. WILSON: No, I don't know that yet. Thank you all very much.