WASHINGTON — Last May, Senate Intelligence Committee rookie Martin Heinrich was just settling into his new Senate office, five floors above the committee’s fiercely guarded headquarters, and finally wrapping his head around some of the intelligence matters he’d recently been tasked to oversee when Edward Snowden happened.
Suddenly, the world was filled with news of National Security Agency surveillance programs whose scope Heinrich had only begun to grasp.
“All of that came to a head very quickly,” said Heinrich, who’d attended his first intelligence briefing just six months before Snowden’s leak of documents exposed the NSA’s massive collection of Americans’ cellphone and Internet data. “I started to realize that the program was much more expansive than my assumption when I was in the House.”
It was uncharted territory for New Mexico’s junior Democratic senator, who isn’t given to bombastic statements or quick opinions. Instead, he speaks quietly with the measured precision of a former mechanical engineer. Many of his committee colleagues arrive at briefings flanked by staff; he often makes the trip alone. While reporters flock to the panel’s better-known names, Heinrich tends to make it through the doors with no one demanding to know what he thinks.
But behind the low-flying demeanor, the panel newcomer has emerged as a leading voice in calls for reining in the NSA programs. It’s a role that has him breaking ranks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who first suggested Heinrich should become an Intelligence Committee member.
It’s been a carefully traveled road for Heinrich, who took months to craft a solid position on the issue.
“I wanted to make sure that I had all the relevant information, that I wasn’t jumping the gun or working off of partial information,” he said of his journey from a member of the House of Representatives who voted to extend the law that allows the NSA programs to an opponent today. “I took my time and really made sure that things were as they appeared.”
Elected to the Senate in 2012 after four terms in the House, Heinrich was coming off tenures on the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Natural Resources. He was angling for similar assignments in the Senate.
Then came the call from Reid. Heinrich could get a spot on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but Armed Services was out. Instead, Reid thought Heinrich would be well suited to the intelligence panel.
With no background outside of surface briefings in the House, the former city councilman from Albuquerque found the new assignment intimidating, he recalled.
“When you get dropped into that committee, you get dropped into what’s going on this week in all of the conflict spots around the world. So you’re hearing about what may have happened in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria or wherever this week,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have the big long-term context that you need to be really effective on the committee.”
To get his bearings, Heinrich scheduled weekly briefings on his own time – “sort of Intel 101,” he said – in which he met with committee staff to ground himself in the intelligence landscape.
Heinrich said he’d just learned about the NSA’s surveillance programs when The Guardian newspaper first published documents revealing the agency’s massive collection of business records on Americans’ cellphone use. That first story described a court order that required cellphone providers to, on a daily basis, give the NSA details of every American cellphone account – what numbers had been called and how long calls had lasted, among other information.
While fellow committee members had years of intelligence experience to fall back on, Heinrich was still getting his bearings when Snowden’s revelations threw the community into a spiral. Committee heavy-hitters such as Feinstein and longtime NSA critic Ron Wyden, D-Ore., quickly picked sides in the debate: Feinstein planted firmly in defense of the NSA, Wyden amplifying previous criticisms.
Stuck between two of the panel’s most reputable voices, Heinrich walked a careful middle ground.
He finally laid his cards on the table in late October, when the committee was asked to vote on a Feinstein-sponsored bill that critics have called a cosmetic attempt to fend off greater overhauls. Four committee members – three of them from Feinstein’s own party, including Heinrich – refused to endorse the legislation. Instead, they signed their names to a competing, and far more stringent, proposal by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
“I realized that if we don’t push this issue a little further, we’re going to continue to have this kind of overreach,” Heinrich said. The move aligned him with more veteran NSA critics on the panel, Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Wyden, who said Heinrich’s voice added a fresh take to their effort.
“As a Westerner, we’re a long way from Washington, D.C.,” Wyden said of Heinrich. “He doesn’t just automatically defer to a lot of these agencies and personnel. He asks hard questions. That’s a huge plus.”
There was little in Heinrich’s House voting record that would have telegraphed his transformation into one of the NSA’s fiercest critics. Across his four terms as a congressman, he voted to extend USA Patriot Act provisions that allow for the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ data, a vote he says he wouldn’t have cast had he known the extent to which the provisions were being used.
The discrepancies in his own positions highlight a problem with congressional oversight of intelligence, Heinrich said.
“You’ll hear some people say, ‘Well, Congress had been briefed, and this information was available to everyone.’ That’s not a particularly intellectually honest perspective, in my view,” he said.
While the smaller size of the Senate makes it easier for members to fully understand classified matters, most House members are left to rely on that chamber’s intelligence panel to make the calls, Heinrich said.
“I absolutely did not know the scope of what was going on under Section 215,” Heinrich said of his time in the House, referring to the Patriot Act provision that authorizes the NSA program.
He said he’d voted to extend the provisions after conversations with House Intelligence Committee members whom he trusted. Those talks, it turned out, didn’t paint a clear picture.
“They couldn’t tell me details. They can’t say things that are classified to somebody in an open session or sitting on the floor of the House,” he said. “Getting to that info for the average (House) member who was not on the Intelligence Committee, the odds of them getting an accurate picture of what was going on were very low.”
It’s a disconnect Heinrich would like to focus on in the coming months, as the committee continues to adjust to the post-Snowden intelligence landscape.
The coming year isn’t expected to be any easier for the intelligence community or its congressional overseers. Along with the NSA debate, which the committee remains divided over, the intelligence panel is bracing for a battle over the release of its massive report on the CIA’s interrogation program, a reportedly scathing look at the agency’s enhanced interrogation practices. Questions continue to arise on Syria and possible draw-downs of troops in Afghanistan.
It’s been a whirlwind initiation year for the former intelligence rookie. But Heinrich said he’d found he was cut out for it.
“I really enjoy the productivity of the relationships, and you can’t always see that from the outside. . . . (That) certainly is true in the intel committee,“ he said. “It’s proven to be a really intellectually challenging and enjoyable place to be.”
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