Defenders of the NSA's domestic spying have argued that Congress had full knowledge of the agency's programs, so if you want to be mad at anyone, be mad at them. President Obama himself made this argument shortly after Ed Snowden's initial revelations. "These programs were originally authorized by Congress," he said. "They have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved them. Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted."
But Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a vocal opponent of NSA spying programs, says that congressional oversight of intelligence programs is "broken."
Amash spoke at a conference hosted by the Cato Institute on Wednesday. While the Senate Intelligence committee sent out briefing information about the programs to members of the upper chamber, Amash says the House Intelligence Committee "decided it wasn't worthwhile to share this information" with members of the House. Instead, he says, the committee offered members an opportunity to attend some classified briefings and review the documents in their committee chamber.
Amash describes those briefings as a farce. Many times, he says, they focused on information that was available from reading newspapers or public statutes. And his account of trying to get details out of those giving the briefings sounds like an exercise in frustration:
So you don't know what questions to ask because you don't know what the baseline is. You don't have any idea what kind of things are going on. So you have to start just spitting off random questions: Does the government have a moon base? Does the government have a talking bear? Does the government have a cyborg army? If you don't know what kind of things the government might have, you just have to guess and it becomes a totally ridiculous game of 20 questions.
Amash says that if he asks a question "in slightly the wrong way they will tell you no. They're not going to tell you 'No, this agency doesn't do it but this other agency does it' or 'No we can't do it under this program, but we can do it under this program.' But you don't know what the other programs are, so what are you going to ask about?"
Amash also noted that the release he had to sign to view classified documents prohibited him from discussing them with anyone -- including other members of Congress who all have clearance to discuss them. So not only could he not get straight answers, he couldn't compare notes with his fellow members of Congress to further his own understanding.
There's little doubt that Congress approved the legislation used to authorize many of the NSA surveillance programs. But Amash's account suggests that many members of Congress didn't know the details of the secret interpretations of those laws. Nor did they have good ways to uncover information about the programs. In that light, the much-touted congressional oversight looks much more like an illusion of accountability than the real thing.