Some people, including the author of the Patriot Act, have accused the Obama administration of misinterpreting Section 215 of the law to justify its phone records program. But a white paper released by the White House on Friday argues that Congress knew exactly what it was approving when it reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2011.
"Information concerning the use of Section 215 to to collect telephony metadata in bulk was made available to all Members of Congress," the paper says. "Congress reauthorized Section 215 without change after this information was provided."
But a leading administration critic has disputed that claim. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said he never saw a 2011 letter to Congress disclosing the existence of the phone records program. And neither did dozens of his colleagues.
The Justice Department sent the letter to the top Republican and the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "We believe that making this document available to all Members of Congress is an effective way to inform the legislative debate about reauthorization of Section 215," the letter, dated February 2, 2011, stated.
But in a Sunday Facebook post, Amash charged that "the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence did NOT, in fact, make the 2011 document available to Representatives in Congress." That means that members of Congress who, like Amash, who were first elected to the House in 2010 didn't have an opportunity to learn about the phone records program before casting votes on a bill to reauthorize the Patriot Act in May 2011.
Even if the HPSCI had made the documents available, it would have been under strictly limited conditions. The letter stated that it would be available only to members of Congress and a few select congressional staffers. That meant that most members would not be able to rely on their own staffers to help them analyze the program.