Senior Obama administration officials, including the Directors of the FBI 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, said a senior official on Saturday.
The administration, by disclosing the briefings to lawmakers, sought to push back on claims by Democrats and Republicans in Congress that they were either not aware of programmes to mine vast amounts of Internet data and business telephone records or were insufficiently briefed on the details.
Lawmakers said what they knew was vague and broad and that strict rules of classification prevented them from truly debating the programmes or conducting proper oversight.
In separate but identical letters sent Oct. 19, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told two of Congress most outspoken critics of the efforts, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, both Democrats, that the Justice Department and intelligence agencies in December 2009 and February 2011 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 several 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 ahead of the reauthorisation of the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 law that authorised 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-authorised 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 reiterating that they have long been concerned about the degree to which this collection has relied on secret law.
Senior officials have said on multiple occasions that the Patriot Acts business records authority is analogous to a grand jury subpoena, adding that multiple senior officials have said U.S. intelligence agencies do not collect information or dossiers on millions of Americans, assertions 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 with a May 12, 2009, classified hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of the U.S. Cyber Command, and David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.
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 FBI Director, Robert S. Mueller III; and Alexander on Feb. 14, 2011. Mr. Mueller spoke to the entire House Republican Conference on May 13, 2011, and to the House Democratic Caucus on May 24, 2011.
On Feb. 8, 2011, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the intelligence committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the committee, 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 Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, drew a distinction between the holding of such briefings and the informed consent of Congress. In truth, very few lawmakers avail themselves of such briefings, 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 Friday. — New York Times News Service