President Obama today defended the surveillance programs that have dominated the headlines for the past few days. The President said that both a program to sweep up the top-level data of calls from Verizon Business customers and the Prism program to mine a vast array of data from major U.S. Internet companies had congressional approval:
"[They] have been authorized by broad, bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. . . . It's important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.”
Tonight on our show, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) took issue with that characterization:
Certainly what the president said today stretched several things. He said that Congress had approved this program. Well, if Congress approves something with very specific standards, and those standards were secretly eviscerated -- the guts were torn out of them so they were meaningless -- then Congress really hasn't approved the program at all. And so I disagree with the president on that.And when he said that members have been briefed, well, I was one of, I think, the few who sought a briefing on the cell phone side, because of what I'd heard in the public press, but I don't think many others outside of the intelligence committee got that briefing, so if the President believes that a hundred members of the Congress knew the details of that program under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act], I think he's wrong. I think very few outside of the Intelligence Committee, and in terms of the Prism program, which I think very few had ever heard of -- I certainly never heard of it -- I doubt that more than the Intelligence Committee would have known about that.
Merkley voted against the Patriot Act when it came up for reauthorization in 2011. Since then, he has tried to pass legislation that would have increased the oversight of warrantless wiretapping and declassified FISA court opinions outlining the government's powers of surveillance. Both measures failed.