Dem. Senator disputes Obama’s claim that Congress was briefed

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) on Friday disputed a claim President Obama made at a press conference only moments earlier, when the president said that every member of Congress had been briefed on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic phone surveillance program.

Merkley said only select members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had been briefed on the program, and that he was only aware of it because he obtained “special permission” to review the pertinent documents after hearing about it second-hand.

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“I knew about the program because I specifically sought it out,” Merkley said on MSNBC. “It’s not something that’s briefed outside the Intelligence Committee. I had to get special permission to find out about the program. It raised concerns for me. … When I saw what was being done, I felt it was so out of sync with the plain language of the law and that it merited full public examination, and that’s why I called for the declassification.”

At a press conference on Friday, Obama said that every member of Congress had been briefed on the phone monitoring program. The president argued that the policy, which was implemented in 2007, struck the “right balance” between privacy and national security, and that it had been helpful in thwarting terrorist attacks.

Obama also noted that federal judges had to sign off on the data gathering requests, which did not encompass the content of phone calls, but only the phone numbers.

But Merkley on Friday blasted the administration’s handling of the program, saying it had ignored requests from Congress to explain the NSA’s domestic surveillance actions, and that it was implementing the program in a way that did not follow the “standard of the law.”

Merkley argued that “plain language of the law” said that the NSA should only be allowed to collect phone data that related to an open investigation, but that the agency was using a “broad vacuum” to sweep up data from ordinary Americans.

“The administration hasn’t listened at all,” Merkley said. “We’ve asked for the rulings of the FISA court – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court – about how it interprets the laws Congress passes to be declassified so we can have a conversation with the American people about that.”

“For example, the question is — how is scooping up your cellphone data, which tracks where you are, my cellphone data, related to an investigation?” he asked. “That’s the plain language of the law — related to an investigation. Well, certainly anyone would hear that and think that’s a certain hurdle that has to be met. That there’s a crime or a potential crime or a potential national security threat that justifies scooping up your information and my information. Clearly the administration has not followed what an ordinary person would consider to be the standard of the law here, and has not been willing to release the opinion of the FISA court in how they’re interpreting that language, despite repeated requests from Congress to do so.”

Revelations that the NSA seized millions of Americans’ phone records has pit the White House against civil liberties activists on the political left.

Many lawmakers knew of the practice, which had been going on privately since 2007, and defended it as a critical tool in the war on terror. But Merkley and his Democratic colleague from Oregon, Sen. Ron Wyden, have joined with some on the right, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in denouncing the measures as riding “roughshod over liberty.”

The scope of the controversy broadened on Friday after the administration acknowledged a top-secret NSA program that collects information on Internet users, called PRISM, that taps directly into the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies.

The White House insisted PRISM was only aimed at foreign terrorism suspects.

“By the way,” Merkley continued. “When I sought information [on the phone surveillance program], the only information I got was that, yes there is a program sweeping up broad amounts of data through the records act. This second thing, which we just learned about, called PRISM, I had no idea about.”

“I don’t know how many people knew about it in Congress, but I suspect a very small number on the Intelligence Committee, so when the president says all members of Congress were briefed … well, I think a very small number of Senators in Congress had full details on these programs,” Merkley said.