By Peter Wallsten, Published: August 10 E-mail the writer
The Obama administration points to checks and balances from Congress as a key rationale for supporting bulk collection of Americans’ telephone communications data, but several lawmakers responsible for overseeing the program in recent years say that they felt limited in their ability to challenge its scope and legality.
The administration argued Friday that lawmakers were fully informed of the surveillance program and voted to keep it in place as recently as 2011. Officials say they have taken unusual steps to make information available to Congress, and committee leaders say they have carefully examined the National Security Agency’s data collection.
Some in President Obama’s administration are pushing for greater transparency in federal surveillance programs following recent revelations about National Security Agency programs. The ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian and Rasch Technology’s Mark Rasch tell Nia-Malika Henderson just how far the government has to go.
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Yet some other members of the intelligence and judiciary committees paint a different picture.
They describe regular classified briefings in which intelligence officials would not volunteer details if questions were not asked with absolute precision.
Unlike typical congressional hearings that feature testimony from various sides of a debate, the briefings in 2010 and 2011 on the telephone surveillance program were by definition one-sided affairs, with lawmakers hearing only from government officials steeped in the legal and national security arguments for aggressive spying.
Additional obstacles stemmed from the classified nature of documents, which lawmakers may read only in specific, secure offices; rules require them to leave their notes behind and restrict their ability to discuss the issues with colleagues, outside experts or their own staff.
While Senate Intelligence Committee members can each designate a full-time staffer for the committee who has full access, House members must rely on the existing committee staff, many of whom used to work for the spy agencies they are tasked with overseeing.
Agency officials, meantime, aggressively court the committee, giving lawmakers a sense of being insiders in a clandestine world and at times treating them to a real-life version of the Spy Museum, former members said.
And when a handful of skeptics on each panel raised concerns about the surveillance program or proposed changes, such as shifting the data collection to the companies rather than the government, they were handily defeated by bipartisan majorities who saw the program as a crucial tool in preventing terrorist attacks.
“In terms of the oversight function, I feel inadequate most of the time,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and an NSA critic. Bulk surveillance “certainly was approved by Congress. Was it approved by a fully knowing Congress? That is not the case.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), another member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the biggest challenge has been figuring out exactly what questions to ask. “Sometimes you wonder if you’re missing big things that you shouldn’t be missing,” Schiff said. The task is made harder, he said, because members must leave their briefing materials in the committee offices in the Capitol basement, where each member’s documents are kept in three-ring binders labeled “Top Secret.”