President Barack Obama’s chief defense of his administration’s wide-ranging data-gathering programs Friday: Congress authorized them, with “every member” well aware of the details.
Not so, say many members of Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike.
Typically, members of Congress “don’t receive this kind of briefing,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told POLITICO Friday. They wouldn’t have known about the programs unless they were on an intelligence committee, attended special sessions last held in 2011 or specifically asked to be briefed – something they would only know to do if they were clued in by an colleague who was already aware.
Durbin said he learned about the two programs himself only after requesting a briefing under “classified circumstances” after being urged to do so by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Congressional leadership and intelligence committees had access to information about the programs, he said – but the “average member” of Congress likely wouldn’t have been aware of the breadth of the telephone and Internet surveillance.
There’s no public record of who has attended any of these sessions – and even the Obama administration couldn’t confirm the president’s claim that “every member of Congress” had been briefed.
The White House declined to comment for this story.
And Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) told POLITICO that the classified intelligence briefing sessions he’s attended haven’t disclosed details on the two data-gathering programs as were unveiled this week.
Schock, in Congress since 2009, said he had “no idea” about the phone data gathering, or any briefings for House members to discuss it, until news reports this week.
Like other members who said they learned of the data-gathering efforts when they were revealed in the Guardian and the Washington Post, Schock said the administration classified briefings he’s attended have revealed very little information.
“I can assure you the phone number tracking of non-criminal, non-terrorist suspects was not discussed,” he said. “Most members have stopped going to their classified briefings because they rarely tell us anything we don’t already know in the news. It really has become a charade.”
President Obama’s explanation allows him to sound a nothing-to-see-here note that paints the programs as both prosaic and innocuous. After all, if all 535 members of Congress knew about them, how bad could they really be?
“These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress, and they’re being fully briefed on these programs,” said Obama. “And if, in fact… there were abuses taking place, presumably those members of Congress could raise those issues very aggressively. They’re empowered to do so.”
But as Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) complained to Attorney General Eric Holder during a Thursday hearing, the idea that Congress has been “fully briefed” on these programs is coming as news to many of the lawmakers themselves.
“This ‘fully briefed’ is something that drives us up the wall, because often ‘fully briefed’ means a group of eight leadership; it does not necessarily mean relevant committees,” Mikulski said.
In theory, briefings on the electronic surveillance programs were available – and offered – to every member of Congress. In practice, they were regularly given to those on the House and Senate Intelligence committees – and haven’t been offered all members of Congress for the past two years, except by request.
Justice and intelligence officials conducted a dozen briefings for congressional committees and leadership between May 2009 and October 2011, and FBI Director Robert Mueller briefed the House GOP conference and House Democratic caucus in May 2011 ahead of the last the Patriot Act reauthorization. The administration also asked that classified white papers be made available to all members of the House and Senate in 2011, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was last re-authorized.
So senators not on the intelligence committee would only have learned of the program had they attended one of those classified briefings in 2010 or 2011. Then, the committee invited all 100 senators to read a classified report on “roving authority for electronic surveillance” in a secure location in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Asked Thursday if she knew how many senators had taken the time to read the report, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) responded: “I do not, certainly the Intelligence Committee should have.”
Congress last reauthorized the FISA provision of the Patriot Act in in May 2011, with the Senate voting 72-23 in favor, and the House approving the measure by a 250-153 count.
It is not known how many members reviewed the intelligence papers prior to those votes. And it’s not clear how many members of Congress have pursued classified briefings on their own. But it’s not hard to find members of Congress this week who say the latest reports are the first they’ve heard of these programs.
There are now nine senators and 61 congressmen who were not in office during the 2010 and 2011 briefing sessions – new members of Congress like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who have never been personally informed of either program unless they asked about it.
“Americans trusted President Obama when he came to office promising the most transparent administration in history,” Cruz said Friday. “But that trust has been broken and the only way to earn it back is to tell the truth.”
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) wrote “not quite” on Twitter in response to a reporter’s tweet about Obama’s remark that “every member” was aware of the data-gathering programs. Long wasn’t made available to explain his tweet Friday.
And Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told MSNBC Friday that he received a briefing only because he “sought it out,” not because the Obama administration had offered it to him.
“I had to get special permission to find out about the program,” Merkley said. “It raised concerns for me… When I saw what was being done, I felt it was so out of sync with the plain language of the law and that it merited full public examination, and that’s why I called for the declassification.”