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On NSA, Obama Points to Congress

President Barack Obama is clearly pinning the onus for oversight of recently revealed intelligence-gathering programs on Capitol Hill.

The president said Friday that while National Security Agency surveillance programs allowing collection of phone data and Internet traffic reported in the media in recent days had been classified, Congress was fully informed.

“Now, the programs that have been discussed in the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified, but they’re not secret in the sense that, when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” Obama said at an event in California. “With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs.”

That may prove an interesting distinction since Obama seems to be conceding that briefings about some programs were available to all lawmakers and briefings about others may have been available to only a select few.

Obama added that the programs are also overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and that his administration imposed new audit requirements and other safeguards.

“We have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about, but again this — these programs — are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate, and if there are members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up, and we’re happy to have that debate,” Obama said.

Of course, that debate has not happened too openly in the past, with skeptics on Capitol Hill facing the conundrum that they cannot actually explain their objections publicly without revealing classified information. For instance, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday that he has offered numerous amendments to curtail the NSA program through the years, while avoiding specifics.

“I’ve tried to be careful in how I expressed that concern because we’re dealing with classified information. I’ve come to the floor, gone to the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered amendments,” Durbin said. “I’ve tried to be as careful there in my language as I could be.”

Still, the public revelations this week are giving a new opportunity for critics of the Obama administration’s record on civil liberties. For instance, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian referring to then-Sen. Obama’s possible filibuster of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reauthorization.

“Senator Obama in 2008 wanted to track potential terrorist activity ‘without undermining our commitment to the rule of law, or our basic rights and liberties’. Today, President Obama undermines the rule of law, basic rights and core liberties — all in the name of tracking terrorists,” Paul wrote. “There is always a balance between security and liberty and the American tradition has long been to err on the side of liberty. America’s founders feared a government powerful enough to commit unreasonable searches and seizures and crafted a constitution designed to protect citizens’ privacy.”

The Guardian first broke news of the program under which the NSA has obtained bulk phone records in order to parse metadata through computers. The Washington Post and The Guardian broke news Thursday about a data-mining program called Prism that, documents said, taps into the databases of nine U.S. companies for information. The administration on Thursday condemned the leaks as “reprehensible” and potentially undermining national security by tipping off terrorists to U.S. capabilities.

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