Intelligence Committee Withheld Key File before Critical NSA Vote
August 14, 2013
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
A leader of the US congressional insurrection against the National Security Agency's bulk surveillance programs has accused his colleagues of withholding a key document from the House of Representatives before a critical surveillance vote. Republican who led Congress revolt against surveillance insists members did not see document before 2011 Patriot Act vote.
WASHINGTON (August 9, 2013) -- A leader of the US congressional insurrection against the National Security Agency's bulk surveillance programs has accused his colleagues of withholding a key document from the House of Representatives before a critical surveillance vote.
Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican whose effort to defund the NSA's mass phone-records collection exposed deep congressional discomfort with domestic spying, said the House intelligence committee never allowed legislators outside the panel to see a 2011 document that described the surveillance in vague terms.
The document, a classified summary of the bulk phone records collection effort justified under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, was declassified by the Obama administration in late July.
The Justice Department and intelligence agencies prepared it for Congress before a 2011 vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and left it for the intelligence committees in Congress to make the document available to their colleagues.
"It is not acceptable for the intelligence committee, or any other committee, to withhold critically important information pertaining to a program prior to the vote," Amash told the Guardian.
While the document does not go into great detail about the program, first revealed by the Guardian through documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, it does tell legislators that NSA is collecting phone records in "bulk" from Americans. The Obama administration and intelligence agencies have pointed to the availability of the document as an example of keeping Congress fully informed about controversial NSA surveillance.
"We believe that making this document available to all members of Congress, as we did with a similar document in December 2009, is an effective way to inform the legislative debate about the reauthorization of Section 215," assistant attorney general Ronald Weich wrote to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee on February 2 2011.
The hundreds of members of Congress who did not serve on the intelligence committee were to be told they could read the document in a secured facility.
But Amash claimed on his Facebook page that never happened.
"I can now confirm that the House permanent select committee on intelligence did not, in fact, make the 2011 document available to representatives in Congress," Amash wrote late Sunday, "meaning that the large class of representatives elected in 2010 did not receive either of the now declassified documents detailing these programs."
A spokeswoman for the House intelligence committee, Susan Phelan, did not return a message from the Guardian on Monday. The committee staff said only Phelan was authorized to address the press.
But one of Amash's Democratic colleagues, a former member of the House intelligence committee, backed Amash's claim.
"I was not aware of the document," Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, told the Guardian.
"This is another example of the difficulty in Congress exerting any oversight of the intelligence community, because the information is frequently not made available to all members."
The intelligence committees in Congress receive access to classified information that non-members rarely receive. Legislators not on the secretive panels often look to their colleagues who serve on them as barometers of opinion about the appropriateness of intelligence activities.
Amash said that he had no reason to believe that a similar summary document about the bulk phone records collection, prepared for release in 2009, was similarly withheld.
That raised the specter of the intelligence committee, which is charged with overseeing the NSA, withholding information from members elected in the 2010 election, when many libertarian and Tea Party Republicans uncomfortable with government power – like Amash – won office.
"Nobody I've spoken to in my legislative class remembers seeing any such document," Amash told the Guardian. "We checked back with the committee, and it was not offered to members."
Amash speculated that congressional leaders and intelligence committee leaders were "concerned the Patriot Act would not pass" if the newer class of legislators knew about the NSA's bulk phone records collection. "In fact, the first time it was brought up, it was brought up under suspension, and it did not pass," Amash said.
The accusation represents an escalation between Amash and the intelligence leadership, which fiercely fought his late-July effort to end the NSA's bulk collection of American phone records.
The panel chairman, Amash's fellow Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, swiped at the younger congressman during a raucous July 24 floor debate: "Are we so small that we can only look at our Facebook "likes" today in this chamber?"
Rogers has pledged to introduce greater privacy protections over the bulk phone records program when his committee takes up the annual intelligence funding bill after the August congressional recess. Amash, meanwhile, has pledged to renew his efforts to vastly restrict the NSA's ability to collect phone data on Americans without individual suspicion of wrongdoing.
Asked if it would be possible to work with the Rogers and the House intelligence committee leadership after learning the committee withheld the document, Amash replied: "I don't know."
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