July 12, 2013

Government surveillance: Lawmakers say they were mislead

The scope of the collection of data on Americans was never made clear, members of both parties say.

By PETER WALLSTEN The Washington Post

Lawmakers tasked with overseeing national security policy say a pattern of misleading testimony by senior Obama administration officials has weakened Congress's ability to rein in government surveillance.

Director of National Intelligence Clapper testifies at a security threat hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
click image to enlarge

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies March 12 before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on national security threats. He testified that the government was not collecting data on millions of Americans, but later said he misspoke.

Reuters

Members of Congress say officials have either denied the existence of a broad program that collects data on millions of Americans or, more commonly, made statements that left some lawmakers with the impression that the government was conducting only narrow, targeted surveillance operations.

The most recent example came on March 12, when James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the government was not collecting information about millions of Americans. He later acknowledged the statement was "erroneous" and apologized, citing a misunderstanding.

On three occasions since 2009, top Justice Department officials said the government's ability to collect business records in terrorism cases is generally similar to that of law enforcement officials during a grand jury investigation. That comparison, some lawmakers now say, signaled to them that data was being gathered on a case-by-case basis, rather than the records of millions of Americans' daily communications being vacuumed up in bulk.

In addition, two Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say that even in top-secret briefings, officials "significantly exaggerated" the effectiveness of at least one program that collected data on Americans' email usage.

The administration's claims are being re-examined following disclosures by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, reported by The Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper, of broad government surveillance of Americans' Internet and phone usage authorized under secret interpretations of law.

At least two Republican lawmakers have called for the removal of Clapper.

A letter to Clapper sent two weeks ago from 26 senators from both parties complained about a series of statements from senior officials that "had the effect of misleading the public" and that will "undermine trust in government more broadly."

Lawmakers in both parties say administration statements can be vague or misleading in subtle ways. Some Democrats and civil libertarians have expressed disappointment in what they say is a pattern of excessive secrecy from President Obama.

He had pledged to run a more transparent administration than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who signed off on the NSA's controversial warrantless wiretapping program and, with the authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, launched the bulk data-collection program that has continued.

"The national security state has grown so that any administration is now not upfront with Congress," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. "It's an imbalance that's grown in our government, and one that we have to cleanse."

Administration officials say they have been as transparent as they could be in disclosing information about sensitive classified programs. All House and Senate members were invited to two classified briefings in 2010 and 2011 at which the programs were discussed, officials said.

Defenders of the surveillance programs in Congress, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House intelligence panel, have said the programs were fully explained.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pointed to "many, many meetings" where surveillance was discussed and said members had "every opportunity to be aware of these programs."

But some lawmakers say they feel that many of the administration's public statements -- often couched in terms that offered assurances of the government's respect for civil liberties and privacy -- seemed designed to mislead Americans and avoid congressional scrutiny.

Wyden said that a number of administration statements have made it "impossible for the public or Congress to have a genuinely informed debate" about government surveillance. The Oregon senator, whose membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee gives him access to the secret court rulings, has tried in recent years to force a public discussion of what he has called "secret law."

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