The revelations about the vast extent of National Security Agency communications surveillance came as a surprise not only to the American public. Despite assurances that Congress had been kept abreast of NSA activity soon after the Guardian newspaper began publishing leaks about the sprawling spy dragnets, a number of House representatives and senators have complained to the contrary.
As I noted last week, GOP Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida both complained about a lack of response from the NSA when they requested basic information on the agency's surveillance programs. The politicians complained that they were blocked from carrying out congressional oversight when denied the most basic information on government programs.
On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that "Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican whose effort to defund theNSA's mass phone-records collection exposed deep congressional discomfort with domestic spying, said the House intelligence committee never allowed legislators outside the panel to see a 2011 document that described the surveillance in vague terms."
The House Intelligence Committee never made this document available to Congress members, even though Assistant Attorney General Robert Welch claimed that the information was indeed available for the representatives to access. Amash forcefully challenges this claim:
While the document does not go into great detail about the program, first revealed by the Guardian through documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, it does tell legislators that NSA is collecting phone records in "bulk" from Americans. The Obama administration and intelligence agencies have pointed to the availability of the document as an example of keeping Congress fully informed about controversial NSA surveillance.
... But Amash claimed on his Facebook page that never happened.
"I can now confirm that the House permanent select committee on intelligence did not, in fact, make the 2011 document available to representatives in Congress," Amash wrote.
A number of NSA critics have stressed that even if Congress had been made better aware of the agency's practices, the vast surveillance dragnet and government hoarding attitude to our communications data would remain disconcerting. However, the fact that even Congress was blocked from basic information (and thus oversight) makes a mockery of our purported democratic process of governing.