So what can we learn from Congress' first real attempt since 9-11 to reign in our intelligence agencies? One obvious place to start is by comparison with the Church Committee, the Senate Committee that investigated abuses by intelligence agencies in the 1970's and exposed extensive abuses.
First and foremost, the Church Committee clearly had only limited success. It exposed serious past abuses and imposed some restraints to reign in out of control intelligence agencies (internal and external). Forty years later, surveillance capacity has grown beyond what anyone in the 1970's could have imagined and intelligence agencies continue to be out-of-control rogues. But there does not appear to have been the sort of corrupt use this time as before. At least so far as we know, this massive surveillance has not been abused to suppress dissent or to advance personal or partisan goals. So to that extent, the Church Committee has had lasting achievements. But an immense, impersonal agency swallowing up all your information and doing who-knows-what with it is scary enough even if not abused to advance private goals.
This time around, Congress has not shown any interest in the sort of serious investigation that the Church Committee undertook. Only when Edward Snowden forced their hand did Congress act. But they did act some, however inadequately. Maybe they will act again sometime.
But looking at the Church Committee and the actions taken by Congress today, I can reach at least three conclusions as to what political conditions will facilitate reigning in the intelligence agencies.
Divided government encourages oversight. This is not exactly a new concept. When the same party controls the Presidency and Congress, it tends to defer to the President. When opposing parties control opposing branches, they clash. And yes, these clashes have been destructive lately, sometimes to the point of bringing about complete paralysis. But when it comes to reigning in an out-of-control executive and out-of-control agencies, it is really helpful if Congress does not trust the President. A healthy measure of distrust is entirely in order here.
A change in who holds the White House can trigger oversight. The Church Committee only started really investigating after the Republican Nixon took over and especially after Watergate. Many Republicans accused them of partisan motives and said that Nixon was not doing anything difference than what his Democratic predecessors had done. And in fact, there was ample evidence of serious abuses going all the way back to Roosevelt and the New Deal. So, yes, partisan motives were probably present and the fact that a Republican had taken over no doubt had a lot to do with triggering the investigation. But in the end, so what? There really was a serious and escalating pattern of abuses that needed addressing.* If it took a certain amount of hypocritical partisanship to make Congress act to reign in the abuses, then so be it.
The same applies today. Yes, Republicans were all for giving the President unlimited power so long as he said "War on Terror" so long he was a Republican. And yes, they are a bunch of fools and hypocrites to make such an about-face on executive power based on which party holds the White House. But if it reigns in our out-of-control intelligence agencies, it is a small price to pay.
At present, a Democratic President and Republican Congress are the best bet to protect privacy. I am well aware that it was the opposite combination at the time of the Church Committee, but times have changed. In particular, the Church Committee operated during a relative thaw in the Cold War, so Democrats did not have to fear looking soft on Communism as much as they would either before or after the 1970's. Right now, I see no hope of any Congress reigning in a Republican President. Democrats are all deathly afraid of looking soft on terrorism and Republicans will all fall in line. Nor do I see much hope of a Democratic Congress reigning in a Democratic President. Fear of looking soft on terrorism and the tendency to line up behind the President are simply too strong. But Republicans have a strong faction that tends to panic at the sight of a Democrat in the White House and see all federal power as dangerous. They are not likely to accept reassurances that really, these powers are intended to protect us from terrorists. Some even think that a Democratic President is in cahoots with the terrorists. On the Democratic side there are some strong civil libertarians who want to reign in surveillance regardless of who controls the White House. These two groups amount to the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the Republican Party. They are an odd set of bedfellows, but if they get the job done, who cares? And the minute a Republican takes the White House, they will part ways.
*On the subject of escalating abuses, I am not an expert on the subject and do not know if that meant that Truman was worse than Roosevelt or Eisenhower worse than Truman. But certainly Kennedy was worse than Eisenhower, Johnson was worse than Kennedy, and Nixon was the worst of all.