When Martin Heinrich won election to the U.S. Senate in 2012, the former Democratic House member had his eye on two plum committee assignments: Armed Services, and Energy and Natural Resources.
New Mexico’s vast military presence and abundant mineral resources made both panels a natural fit. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered Heinrich the energy spot but told him juggling two premier committees was too much for a freshman. Instead of Armed Services, Reid appointed Heinrich to the then-lower-profile Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Today, after eight months of scandals surrounding the National Security Agency’s domestic and foreign surveillance programs, it’s clear that the Senate intelligence committee has become a heavyweight congressional jurisdiction in its own right. And according to a McClatchy newspaper story published Friday, New Mexico’s junior senator has emerged as a “leading voice in calls for reigning in the NSA programs.”
In a recent interview, Heinrich told me he took the intel seat with some trepidation and quickly requested briefings with committee staff to help him better understand the complicated, often classified, issues.
“When you drop into that committee, you drop into the day,” Heinrich explained. “You’re getting briefed on what’s happening today in the Horn of Africa or wherever there are conflicts. If you don’t take a moment to pull back and ask yourself about the history, you don’t really get an accurate picture.”
Heinrich said he’s worked to better understand exactly what the CIA and NSA do. He had some experience with the clandestine agencies as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. But the Senate intelligence post has been a revelation – and not always a comfortable one. “It’s a bit of a conundrum to have a secret agency operating within a democracy,” Heinrich said.
During his first year on the committee, Heinrich has forged a close working relationship with two other Democrats on the panel: Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado. Wyden, a savvy 17-year Senate veteran who is also the chairman of the Senate energy committee, is widely considered the leading congressional critic of the NSA.
In an interview Thursday, Wyden told me the trio refers to itself as the “Ben Franklin Caucus.” The name nods to the Founding Father’s famous quote: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
“What the three of us have tried to show is security and liberty are not mutually exclusive,” Wyden said. “We can have both.”
Wyden said Heinrich does his homework and doesn’t seem dazzled by the powerful – even glamorous – U.S. intelligence community.
“What I like about Martin Heinrich is he got from day one that the fundamental rule of our job is to ask tough questions,” Wyden said. “You get on the committee and right away the intelligence community invites you to come in and it’s almost as if you get swept up by those who run these programs.
“There are thousands and thousands of wonderful patriotic Americans who work in the intelligence community but the reality is the intelligence leadership on a number of occasions has actively misled the country,” Wyden added. “They would say one thing in public and another in private. It’s very important to have legislators who will ask the tough questions and Sen. Heinrich does that.”
In late October, Heinrich introduced an amendment in the committee that would have prohibited the NSA’s blanket collection of Americans’ cellphone location information, while permitting capture of the information with a warrant. The amendment failed and Heinrich’s position put him at odds with the committee’s powerful chairman, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. The Wyden-Heinrich-Udall trio rebuked their colleagues after the vote.
“The Intelligence Committee has effectively voiced support for giving the executive branch the authority to turn the cell phone of every man, woman, and child into a tracking device,” they wrote in a statement.
Heinrich said the NSA’s bulk email collection is a waste of time and money, and rife for abuse. But he also stressed that he has no interest in protecting bad guys. “I am all for reading the emails and tapping the phones of people we suspect of terrorism,” Heinrich said. “If you’re going to commit an egregious act against the citizens of this country, you should expect we’re going to do everything we can to come after you.”
The so-called Ben Franklin Caucus on Friday sent a letter to the White House asking President Obama to end collection of “innocent Americans’ private phone records and to close a loophole that allows for warrantless searches of the content of phone calls.” They also pressed Obama to create a constitutional advocate at the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Heinrich also is pressing the intel committee to release a classified 6,000-page study on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program that, in his view, resulted in the torture of dozens of individuals for little-to-no intelligence value.
Asked if New Mexicans would appreciate his work on the arcane, secretive committee seemingly so removed from the day-to-day struggles of New Mexicans, Heinrich suggested they would.
“I’ve been amazed at how many people do pay attention to these issues and how strongly they feel about them.”