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.