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McMANUS: A head-in-the-sand Congress

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is hopping mad. Sensenbrenner considers himself the father of the Patriot Act, the 2001 law that gave the federal government new powers to investigate potential terrorists. But he thinks the National Security Agency’s program to collect records on every telephone call in the country goes well beyond what he intended.

“This is an abuse of that law,” Sensenbrenner thundered. What’s more, he complained, the Obama administration never told him about it. “Some members of Congress were briefed,” he said, but “most, including myself, were not.”

There are two problems with Sensenbrenner’s complaints. First, the Justice Department did tell his committee about the secret program, just not in public. And second, as the author of Section 215, the clause under which the NSA collected telephone metadata, he had every reason to ask for more details about how the law was being used; apparently, he didn’t.

Sensenbrenner isn’t the only politician to express shock at what was going on under his nose. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, scolded Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last week for claiming that Congress had been fully briefed.

“This ‘fully briefed’ is something that drives us up the wall,” Mikulski said. “Fully briefed doesn’t mean we know what’s going on.” But Mikulski knows how to ask the NSA questions if she thinks there are things she’s not being told. The agency is the biggest employer in her home state. She’s been a cheerleader for its expansion and for increasing its budget.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, repeatedly told other senators that they could learn more details about the NSA’s activities by coming to her panel’s secure office, but few did. And last year, at the urging of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., several proposals were debated on the Senate floor to release more information publicly about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering.

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