Contrary to the many assurances given by the Obama Administration and officials within the intelligence community that Congress was fully informed of the NSA spying programs revealed by Edward Snowden, letters obtained by the Guardian reveal members of Congress are being denied basic information about the NSA. So much for oversight, let alone checks and balances. The NSA is able to operate outside the law with most of Congress none the wiser.

Members of Congress have been repeatedly thwarted when attempting to learn basic information about the National Security Agency (NSA) and the secret FISA court which authorizes its activities, documents provided by two House members demonstrate.

From the beginning of the NSA controversy, the agency’s defenders have insisted that Congress is aware of the disclosed programs and exercises robust supervision over them. “These programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate,” President Obama said the day after the first story on NSA bulk collection of phone records was published in this space. “And if there are members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up.”

The letters from Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-PA) clearly demonstrate the NSA’s unwillingness to recognize Congress as a co-equal branch of government, in violation of Constitutional principles. Apparently Congress is expected to vote on these issues without knowing the facts, or rather, only having the facts the NSA wants them to have.

Denial of access for members of Congress to basic information about the NSA and the FISC appears to be common. Justin Amash, the GOP representative who, along with Democratic Rep. John Conyers, co-sponsored the amendment to ban the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, told CNN on July 31: “I, as a member of Congress, can’t get access to the court opinions. I have to beg for access, and I’m denied it if I – if I make that request.”…

It has been widely noted that the supremely rubber-stamping FISA court constitutes NSA “oversight” in name only, and that the Intelligence Committees are captured by the agency and constrained to act even if they were inclined to. Whatever else is true, members of Congress in general clearly know next to nothing about the NSA and the FISA court beyond what they read in the media, and those who try to rectify that are being actively blocked from finding out.

Although some members on the intelligence committees may (or may not) have some access to the details of these programs, Congress as a whole must authorize the NSA’s budget and operations. That authorization process is subverted and undermined when members of Congress are kept in the dark about what the NSA is actually doing. That is, of course, when they aren’t being lied to about the NSA programs outright by intelligence officials under oath.