President Obama met behind closed doors with a handful of lawmakers concerned about national security in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations — a mix of those concerned about compromised security and those alarmed about the NSA’s reach into Americans’ daily lives.
The Thursday afternoon sit-down in the Oval Office included Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), as well as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
Representing administration skeptics and critics of the surveillance programs were Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and principal Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
The Obama administration called the combination a meeting of “some of the programs’ most prominent critics and defenders.”
“Today’s meeting was constructive and the president committed that he and his team would continue to work closely with the Congress on these matters in the weeks and months ahead,” the White House said in a brief readout.
The leaders of the intelligence committees called the meeting “productive” in a joint statement.
“There was agreement in the room the NSA call record program (Section 215) is not a domestic surveillance program,” they said. “We will continue to work through the August recess on proposals to improve transparency and strengthen privacy protections to further build the confidence of the American public in our nation’s counterterrorism programs.”
But Sensenbrenner said after the meeting “it is becoming increasingly apparent the balance between security and liberty has been tainted.”
“Amidst public outcry, the President invited members from both sides of the debate to discuss this important issue. The conversation was productive and everyone agreed something must be done,” he said. “Washington must ensure our homeland is protected, as is our right to privacy.”
Sensenbrenner promised to come back after the five-week recess armed with legislation “to ensure Section 215 of the Patriot Act is properly interpreted and implemented.”
“The bill will ensure the dragnet collection of data by the NSA is reined in, safeguards are established to significantly increase the transparency of the FISA Court and protections are put in place for businesses who work with the government,” he said.
The meeting was added to Obama’s schedule this week, squeezed in before a planned bilateral meeting with Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and undoubtedly intended to tamp down his critics who are growing louder on the Hill.
On Wednesday, Wyden slammed the declassified documents released by the Director of National Intelligence — yet another attempt to assuage critics — by saying they just served to highlight administration lies.
“The newly declassified briefing documents released today show that the executive branch repeatedly made inaccurate statements to Congress about the value and effectiveness of the bulk email records collection program that was carried out under the USA PATRIOT Act until 2011. These statements had the effect of misleading members of Congress about the usefulness of this program,” Wyden said.
“The briefing documents that were provided to Congress in December 2009 and February 2011 clearly stated that both the bulk email records and bulk phone records collection programs were ‘unique in that they can produce intelligence not otherwise available to NSA.’ The 2009 briefing document went on to state that the two programs ‘provide a vital capability to the Intelligence Community,’ and the 2011 briefing document stated that they provided ‘an important capability,’” the senator continued.