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.
Wyden noted that he and Udall “spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing the Intelligence Community to provide evidence to support the claims that they had made about the bulk email records program.”
“They were unable to do so, and the program was shut down due to a lack of operational value, as senior intelligence officials have now publicly confirmed,” he said.
And again, he stressed the deception.
“While I believe that releasing these documents is a welcome step toward greater openness and more informed debate about domestic surveillance programs, they are, in fact, further evidence of a pattern of misleading statements to Congress on this topic,” Wyden said. “Similarly misleading statements about the bulk email records program were also made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, though these statements unfortunately remain classified.”
The Oval Office meeting came not just on the day that Russia gave one-year asylum to Snowden, but a day after Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald revealed another one of Snowden’s secrets: a secret NSA program called XKeyscore that “allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.”
The documents on the program give more weight to Snowden’s claim that he could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.”
The co-chairman of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus called the revelation “appalling, but not surprising.”
“For weeks we were assured that the NSA was only collecting unidentifiable metadata that could only be accessed after a warrant was issued,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). “The truth is that by filling out a simple online form analysts could search your emails, your online chats and even your browsing history without prior authorization. This is a violation of your privacy, a violation of the 4th Amendment, and it is just wrong.”
“We need to thoroughly investigate the use of this program and promptly pass legislation that will rein it in,” Barton added.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney brushed off criticism of the surveillance programs at Thursday’s briefing, saying of support for the snooping “there’s not many things that Democrats and Republicans agree on, but this seems to be one of them.”
“I’m not going to engage in a discussion about or characterize our views on proposals that have been put forward — and certainly there is more than one — except to say that we’re in conversation with members of Congress about various ideas,” Carney continued. “…I think the president, as he has made abundantly clear, welcomes the discussion and debate. He believes that the balance is essential. And I think he certainly doesn’t doubt that there are ways to improve the effectiveness of the programs that we have.”
It’s not lost on the White House that the House last week came surprisingly close to killing funding for the NSA’s mass phone record collection in a bipartisan show of force.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), one of the co-sponsors of Rep. Justin Amash’s (R-Mich.) bill, said today he’s been “hearing from constituents, an enormous public outcry about reining in our national security apparatus and making sure that we have reasonable checks and balances around access to our most personal information in honoring the spirit of our Constitution.”
“I think the point that Representative Amash and I are making that the American people feel is common sense, is that liberty and security are not mutually exclusive. We can and we must have them both,” Polis said on MSNBC. “We can’t give up what makes it special to be an American under our Constitution in the name of security, or we lose the very thing that we’re trying to protect and that we cherish.”