A sweeping memo detailing thousands of NSA privacy violations seems like it should be instrumental to oversight of the NSA's surveillance — yet the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees disagree on whether or not they'd seen it.
One of the more telling aspects of the Washington Post's report on that memo outlining violations of rules on collecting data on Americans was that Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Post reporter Barton Gellman that she hadn't seen it. Released in May of 2012, the memo aggregates the volume and causes of incidents in which the NSA had inappropriately collected data on American citizens during the preceding 12 months, which it did 2,776 times. Later that year, Congress voted to reauthorize the measures that were being violated.
The Atlantic Wire reached out to the five ranking minority and majority members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Our question was simple: had the member of Congress seen the document prior to it being reported by the Post? Some — like Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ron Wyden — wouldn't answer either way. Others haven't yet responded. The office of Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, reached by phone, seemed a bit overwhelmed, saying that it didn't have an answer. Rep. Mike Thompson of California sent us an unrelated statement. Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island wouldn't "confirm either way."
Over email, Kelsey Knight, communications director for Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan, answered simply, "yes," he had seen it. She then offered more detail.
The Committee did receive the report prior to its publication in the Post. The Committee is regularly informed on NSA's use of its authorities, to include reporting on unintentional and technical errors, such as the ones detailed in the report.
If other members of the House intelligence committee saw the same document, none has been forthcoming about it yet.
Rogers (pictured above) has been an unwavering champion of the NSA's surveillance systems in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. Earlier this week, he came under fire from ethics groups for allegedly having failed to share a 2011 document detailing the NSA's phone metadata collection with other members of Congress. (It appears that the document at issue is one recently declassified by the government.)
The governmental importance of the memo reported by the Post isn't clear. It may be a one-of-a-kind document responding to an exception; it may be an annual or quarterly document of the sort that the NSA and Congress have described being part of the oversight process. It does make clear, however, that either members of Congress or the National Security Agency have additional steps to take to ensure that elected officials understand precisely what they're voting on.
Update, 3:45 p.m.: Feinstein's office released a statement this afternoon which the senator claims was the entirety of the statement she provided to the Post. The statement does not claim that Feinstein saw the memo, but implies that she was informed of its contents: "While today’s Washington Post stated that Feinstein did not receive a copy of the 2012 audit cited by the paper until The Post asked about it, Feinstein’s full statement provided on Thursday to the paper made clear the committee receives the FISA compliance information in a more official format rather than as an internal NSA statistical report." That statement says:
By law, the Intelligence Committee receives roughly a dozen reports every year on FISA activities, which include information about compliance issues. Some of these reports provide independent analysis by the offices of the inspectors general in the intelligence community. The committee does not receive the same number of official reports on other NSA surveillance activities directed abroad that are conducted pursuant to legal authorities outside of FISA (specifically Executive Order 12333), but I intend to add to the committee’s focus on those activities.
The committee has been notified — and has held briefings and hearings — in cases where there have been significant FISA compliance issues. In all such cases, the incidents have been addressed by ending or adapting the activity...