A key question raised amid the ongoing controversy ignited by NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden is the manner in which US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have interpreted laws put in place by Congress.
Within that debate, a secondary issue has been centered around the manner in which intelligence officials share information with Congress and now—following reporting by The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman—new questions have surfaced about the way some members of Congress, specifically those privileged to sit on the select intelligence committees, share their knowledge about secretive programs and legal interpretations with their own congressional colleagues.
Two separate stories written by Ackerman this week (here and here) tell the story and beg questions about a key vote in the House of Representatives in 2011 when a renewal of the post-9/11 Patriot Act was up for debate in Congress.
According to that reporting, concerns have arisen that the intelligence committee failed to provide a key document with non-committee members, the content of which could have seriously impacted the law's ability to pass.
Republican Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan, a leading critic of the NSA following disclosures made possible by Snowden, has driven speculation that the intelligence committee's failure to share the key information with the full House before that Patriot Act vote in 2011 was not an accident.
As Ackerman reports:
The accusations broaden the focus of the surveillance controversy from the National Security Agency to one of the congressional committees charged with exercising oversight of it – and the panel's closeness to the NSA it is supposed to oversee.
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Amash told the Guardian on Monday that he had confirmed with the House intelligence committee that the committee did not make non-committee members aware of the classified overview from 2011 of the bulk phone records collection program first revealed by the Guardian thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden. The document was expressly designed to be shared with legislators who did not serve on the panel; it appears that a corresponding document for the Senate in 2011 was made available to all senators.
"Nobody I've spoken to in my legislative class remembers seeing any such document," Amash said.
Amash speculated that the House intelligence committee withheld the document in order to ensure the Patriot Act would win congressional reauthorization, as it ultimately did.
As experts who spoke with Ackerman confirm, the revolving door between the intelligence agencies and the powerful intelligence committee only deepen suspicion about the way disclosures are handled at the congressional level.
"The congressional committees charged with oversight of the intelligence community have long been captive to, and protective of, the intelligence agencies," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
"Many of the congressional staff, in fact, come from those agencies. This latest revelation demonstrates the harm caused by that conflict of interest. When the congressional oversight committee is more loyal to the agency it oversees than to the legislative chamber its members were elected to serve in, the public's interest is seriously compromised."