Obama memo on NSA kept under wraps

WASHINGTON — A letter drafted by the Obama administration specifically to inform Congress of the government’s mass collection of Americans’ telephone communications data was withheld from lawmakers by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee in the months before a key vote affecting the future of the program.

The February 2011 document was declassified last month and has been cited repeatedly by administration officials and legislative leaders as evidence that the surveillance program had been properly examined by Congress as part of an aggressive system of checks and balances.

A cover letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees that was sent with the document asked the leaders of each panel to share the written material with all members of Congress.

Ronald Weich, who was an assistant attorney general at the time, wrote that making the material available to Congress would be an “effective way to inform the legislative debate about reauthorization” of the provision of the Patriot Act that served as the legal basis for the phone surveillance. A similar document was available to all members of Congress in 2009, before a 2010 reauthorization vote.

But the House Intelligence Committee opted against making the 2011 document widely available. Instead, the committee invited all 435 House members to attend classified briefings where the program was discussed — briefings that critics say were vague and uninformative.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who has emerged as a leading critic of the National Security Agency program, said he and dozens of other members elected in 2010 did not have access to the information they needed to fully understand the program until the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The withheld document “doesn’t provide enough details, but it would have at least been a starting point to ask questions,” Amash said. He said confronting intelligence officials during the briefings was “like a game of 20 questions,” and added: “If you don’t know about the program, you don’t know what to ask about.”

A spokeswoman for the House committee, Susan Phalen, declined to say whether the panel had voted to withhold the letter or whether the decision was made by Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

“Because the letter by itself did not fully explain the programs, the Committee offered classified briefings, open to all Members of Congress, that not only covered all of the material in the letter but also provided much more detail in an interactive format with briefers available to fully answer any Members’ questions,” Phalen said. “The discussion of the letter not being distributed is a side issue intended to give the false impression that Congress was denied information. That is not the case.”

The dispute over the 2011 document comes amid growing questions about the ability of Congress and the judiciary to perform their roles in overseeing the country’s vast intelligence system, with lawmakers on key oversight committees and the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court expressing concerns in recent days.

The five-page document, headlined “Report of the National Security Agency’s Bulk Collection Programs for USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization,” was posted online by the government in a redacted form last month.

A white paper issued by the Obama administration last week noted that lawmakers had been granted access to a similar document in 2009. The white paper credits the chairs of the House and Senate committees for sharing the document in 2009. A footnote in the white paper says the 2011 document was made available to all senators — but is silent on the House.

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