House committee withheld letter on telephone data collection
WASHINGTON — A letter drafted by the Obama administration specifically to inform Congress of the government's mass collection of Americans' telephone communications data was withheld from lawmakers by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee in the months before a key vote affecting the future of the program.
The February 2011 document was declassified last month and has been cited repeatedly by administration officials and legislative leaders as evidence that the surveillance program had been properly examined by Congress as part of an aggressive system of checks and balances.
A cover letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees that was sent with the document asked the leaders of each panel to share the written material with all members of Congress.
Ronald Weich, who was an assistant attorney general at the time, wrote that making the material available to Congress would be an “effective way to inform the legislative debate about reauthorization” of the provision of the Patriot Act that served as the legal basis for the phone surveillance.
But the House Intelligence Committee opted against making the 2011 document widely available. Instead, the committee invited all 435 House members to attend classified briefings where the program was discussed —briefings that critics say were vague and uninformative.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who has emerged as a leading critic of the National Security Agency program, said he and dozens of other members elected in 2010 did not have access to the information they needed to fully understand the program until the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.