Obama Invites NSA’s Top Congressional Critics to Meet at White House

Thursday’s meeting is by invitation only and staffers are banned from attending.

Demonstrators hold up a placard in support of former US agent of the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate as they take part in a protest against the U.S. National Security Agency.
National Journal
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 7, 2014, 8:12 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama will sum­mon key law­makers to the White House on Thursday to dis­cuss the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial spy­ing pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to staffers.

Con­gres­sion­al aides said that the meet­ing’s at­tend­ance will be small, in­clud­ing only Pres­id­ent Obama, seni­or White House staff, and the chair­men and rank­ing mem­bers of each cham­ber’s Ju­di­ciary and In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees. Also in­vited are a few “key play­ers,” staffers say, such as Demo­crat­ic Sens. Mark Ud­all and Ron Wyden and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner — a trio that has been par­tic­u­larly crit­ic­al of the NSA’s data-gath­er­ing ef­forts.

The meet­ing is by in­vit­a­tion only and staffers are banned from at­tend­ing, ac­cord­ing to the aides.

Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, the Cali­for­nia Demo­crat who chairs the Sen­ate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, con­firmed on Tues­day that she would at­tend the meet­ing.

A sep­ar­ate meet­ing is planned for Wed­nes­day in the Situ­ation Room between rel­ev­ant White House aides and con­gres­sion­al staffers.

It re­mains un­clear pre­cisely what Obama wants to dis­cuss, but one aide ex­pec­ted him to of­fer some re­forms in an at­tempt to garner sup­port from the law­makers. Oth­ers view the meet­ing as curs­ory, an at­tempt to check the “met with law­makers” box be­fore an­noun­cing any pro­posed changes to the NSA.

Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., a key ad­voc­ate of tak­ing away the NSA’s mass sur­veil­lance powers, said Tues­day that he is op­tim­ist­ic the ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing pos­it­ive steps for­ward.

“The pres­id­ent is go­ing to be hav­ing some meet­ings, I un­der­stand. He’s go­ing to be ob­vi­ously com­ing out with some of his po­s­i­tions,” he said. “I think we’ll know more by the end of the week.”

But staffers close to oth­er law­makers ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that Obama would enu­mer­ate spe­cif­ic re­forms Thursday. “I do not think this ad­min­is­tra­tion will turn this pro­gram off,” a Demo­crat­ic staffer said, re­fer­ring to the NSA’s sweep­ing col­lec­tion of tele­phone metadata. “That will re­quire con­gres­sion­al ac­tion.”

Earli­er re­ports in­dic­ate Obama is pre­par­ing to an­nounce a slew of in­tel­li­gence re­forms ahead of his State of the Uni­on ad­dress on Jan. 28. Ex­pec­ted changes in­clude pla­cing a pub­lic ad­voc­ate with­in the secret For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, which cur­rently only hears from gov­ern­ment law­yers re­quest­ing sur­veil­lance au­thor­ity, and trans­fer­ring con­trol of the NSA’s tele­phone metadata re­cords to private phone com­pan­ies from which the gov­ern­ment could is­sue data re­quests.

Obama has said he would re­view a pres­id­en­tial task force’s list of 46 re­com­men­ded changes and “make a pretty defin­it­ive state­ment about all of this in Janu­ary.” He re­peatedly re­buffed cri­ti­cism of the agency’s bulk data col­lec­tion, say­ing, “I have con­fid­ence that the NSA is not en­ga­ging in do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance and not snoop­ing around,” but con­ced­ing that more needs to be done to re­store pub­lic con­fid­ence in the pro­grams.

Sensen­bren­ner in­tro­duced the Free­dom Act late last year in an at­tempt to re­strict the gov­ern­ment’s wide in­ter­pret­a­tion of sec­tion 215 of the post-Sept. 11 Pat­ri­ot Act, which he also sponsored.

The NSA has been un­der siege since Ed­ward Snowden began leak­ing last June a de­luge of doc­u­ments re­veal­ing the size and scope of the agency’s bulk col­lec­tion of do­mest­ic and in­ter­na­tion­al phone and In­ter­net data. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked the gov­ern­ment in sharply worded let­ter wheth­er the NSA was spy­ing on mem­bers of Con­gress. The NSA is­sued a re­sponse over the week­end say­ing they were re­view­ing the in­quiry.

The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee has sched­uled a hear­ing for Jan. 14 with all five mem­bers of the pres­id­ent’s sur­veil­lance re­view board to dis­cuss its pro­posed re­form meas­ures.

Contributions by Stacy Kaper