Three congressmen asked the government to disclose more about NSA spying in 2009. It said no.

October 28, 2013

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Newly declassified letters show that three members of the House Judiciary Committee asked the Department of Justice to tell the public more about how parts of the Patriot Act were being used to justify bulk phone record collections -- and that Justice said no.

In identical letters from Dec. 17, 2009, addressed to then House Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)  and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich thanks each member for an Oct., 5 2009 letter "requesting that the Department of Justice work to provide additional public information on the use of 215 of the USA PATRIOT ACT"—the provision that the government contends allows dragnet collection of Americans' phone records.

The letters go on to say that they will not be releasing further information to the public, citing national security concerns.

Public discussion of the highly classified uses of Section 215 authority, including the bulk collection program conducted thereunder, is problematic because it would expose sensitive sources and methods involved in this critical intelligence collection activity. Because we are concerned that disclosure would cause serious damage to national security, we cannot disclose publicly that Section 214 is used for bulk collection of telephony metadata. We do agree, however, that it is important that Members of Congress have access to information about this program, as well as a similar collection program conducted under the pen register/trap and trace authority of FISA, when considering reauthorization of the expiring USA PATRIOT Act provisions.

The letter does say that the Department of Justice has "worked with the Intelligence Community to prepare a document that describes these two collection programs" and the authorities under which they operate. However, many members of Congress have expressed shock at the extent of surveillance and do not believe they were adequately informed about NSA actions. For instance, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) claims to have been surprised by the revelations while Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) described trying to get straight answers out of intelligence hearings as a frustrating game of 20 questions. Even Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) believes there was a "failure of oversight."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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