Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of the harshest critics of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program, skipped a briefing with Obama administration officials on NSA’s PRISM program, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Merkley has emerged as one of NSA’s most vocal critics, joining Wyden and a handful of libertarian Republicans in vocally criticizing its sweeping domestic surveillance activities — and an alleged lack of transparency with Congress.
“We just have learned about called PRISM, I had no idea about, I don’t know how many people knew about it in Congress, but I suspect a very small number on the intelligence committees,” Merkley said during a recent appearance on Now With Alex Wagner. “And so when the President says all, I think he said all members of Congress, or full disclosure to all your members, well I think very small number of Senators and Congressman have full the details on these programs.”
During another appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show last week Merkley said he had “I think very few ever heard of, I certainly never heard of it” adding later he had not been briefed on the program.
But Merkley could have been briefed — if he’d stayed in a November meeting.
According to a source close to the situation, the Nov. 27 briefing, arranged by Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, included then-Assistant Attorney General for National Security Lisa Monaco, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, DNI General Counsel Bob Litt, and NSA General Counsel Rajesh De.
The source said that while attendees waited for Merkley before beginning the meeting, the liberal Democrat made only a brief appearance before excusing himself and then going on MSNBC’s Hardball.
Merkley’s office acknowledged the lawmaker missed the meeting but insisted he remains deeply troubled with NSA’s activities.
“Sen. Merkley is deeply concerned about the privacy of American citizens and the scope of government data collection, and has sought out various information in that regard,” a spokesman for Merkely said. “In this case, Sen. Merkley thought the meeting would be on an area that he had already been briefed on, and when conflicts arose he missed the meeting.”
Another aide familar with the meeting told BuzzFeed “there was no reason for the Senator to believe this was going to be a meeting about this new wide-ranging surveillance program.”
“How was it that all of Congress was briefed if the only way Sen. Merkley could have known about it was a meeting held by special request?” the aide added.