June 8, 2013
White House Says Congress Was Briefed 13 Times on Surveillance Programs
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Senior Obama administration officials, including the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and of national intelligence, have held 13 classified hearings and briefings for members of Congress since 2009 to explain the broad authority they say they have to sweep up electronic records for national security purposes, a senior administration official said Saturday.
The administration, by disclosing the briefings, sought to push back on claims by Democrats and Republicans in Congress that they were either not aware of programs to mine vast amounts of Internet data and business telephone records or were insufficiently briefed on the details.
Lawmakers said that what they knew was vague and broad — and that strict rules of classification prevented them from truly debating the programs or conducting proper oversight.
In separate but identical letters sent on Oct. 19, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told two of Congress’s most outspoken critics of the efforts, Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats, that in December 2009 and February 2011 the Justice Department and intelligence agencies provided a classified document to Congress describing the surveillance efforts in detail.
The letter said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had been briefed “on these operations multiple times and have had access to copies of the classified” orders and opinions of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Members of the committee were invited to share the information with other lawmakers.
Broader briefings were held in 2011 before the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that authorized much of the surveillance.
“Against this backdrop, we do not believe the executive branch is operating pursuant to ‘secret law’ or ‘secret opinions of the Department of Justice,’ ” Mr. Weich wrote. “Rather, the intelligence community is conducting court-authorized intelligence activities pursuant to a public statute, with the knowledge and oversight of Congress and the Intelligence Committees of both houses.”
On Friday, Mr. Udall and Mr. Wyden released a joint statement repeating that they had “long been concerned about the degree to which this collection has relied on ‘secret law.’ ”
“Senior administration officials have stated on multiple occasions that the Patriot Act’s ‘business records’ authority is ‘analogous to a grand jury subpoena,’ ” they said. They added that “multiple senior officials have stated that U.S. intelligence agencies do not collect information or dossiers on ‘millions of Americans,’ ” assertions that they believe have been contradicted by revelations of Internet data mining and a court order asking a Verizon subsidiary to turn over logs of telephone calls.
“Now that the fact of bulk collection has been declassified, we believe that more information about the scale of the collection, and specifically whether it involves the records of ‘millions of Americans,’ should be declassified as well,” they said.
The list of briefings begins on May 12, 2009, with a classified hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee involving Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of the United States Cyber Command, and David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.
On Feb. 14, 2011, all senators were offered the opportunity to discuss the broad authority under the Patriot Act with the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr.; the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III; and General Alexander. Mr. Mueller spoke to the House Republican Conference on May 13, 2011, and to the House Democratic Caucus on May 24, 2011.
On Feb. 8, 2011, Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the panel, invited every senator to a briefing with Mr. Clapper and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to discuss expiring provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
The provisions — “one on roving authority for electronic surveillance and the other on the acquisition of business records that are relevant to investigations to protect against international terrorism or espionage” — were added to the 1978 law by the Patriot Act.
But Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, draws a distinction between the holding of such briefings and the informed consent of Congress. Very few lawmakers avail themselves of such briefings, he suggested, and only the most senior leaders are kept fully abreast of intelligence activities.
“You can count on two hands the number of people in Congress who really know,” he said in an interview on Friday.