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
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4631) }}

What We're Following See More »
GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
1 days ago

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
1 days ago

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
1 days ago

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
14 hours ago

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.
CNN Calls the Primary for Sanders and Trump
1 hours ago

Well that didn’t take long. CNN has already declared Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump the winners of the New Hampshire primary, leaving the rest of the candidates to fight for the scraps. Five minutes later, the Associated Press echoed CNN’s call.