Still, some lawmakers now say the testimony offered no clear indication that all Americans were subject to surveillance under the administration’s broad standard.
“I don’t know if it was an outright lie, but it was certainly misleading to what was going on,” said Nadler, who was chairman of the committee that heard from Hinnen in 2009.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), a key author of the Patriot Act who presided over a 2011 House hearing where Hinnen appeared, wrote last month to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that the Justice Department’s description “left the committee with the impression that the administration was using the business records provision sparingly and for specific materials.”
In an interview, Sensenbrenner, former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he had thought that he and his colleagues had created a sufficiently narrow standard for seeking information. The provision allows the government to collect only data that is “relevant” to an authorized terrorism investigation. Some lawmakers, warning of government abuse, tried unsuccessfully in 2005 to tighten the standard.
The relevancy requirement “was intended to be limiting,” Sensenbrenner said. “Instead, what we’re hearing now is that ‘relevant’ was expanding.” Sensenbrenner called it a “stretch of the English language” for the administration to consider millions of Americans’ phone records to be “relevant.”
Sensenbrenner, who had access to multiple classified briefings as a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he does not typically attend such sessions. He called the practice of classified briefings a “rope-a-dope operation” in which lawmakers are given information and then forbidden from speaking out about it. Members are not permitted to discuss information disclosed in classified briefings.
“It’s the same old game they use to suck members in,” he said.
Referring to public testimony from officials, Sensenbrenner added: “How can we do good oversight if we don’t get truthful and non-misleading testimony?”
The allegation of misleading statements even during classified sessions comes from Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Their concerns arose from closed-door discussions in 2011 regarding a top-secret program that was collecting data about Americans’ e-mail usage.
The existence of the e-mail surveillance program, which was shut down in 2011, was first disclosed publicly late last month in The Post and the Guardian. After that disclosure, Wyden and Udall took the unusual step of releasing a statement describing classified interactions with intelligence officials. The senators said they had been “quite familiar” with the program and had devoted much of their time in 2011 to questioning officials about it.