I used to think it was impossible to have a meaningful “national debate” on mass surveillance because too many of the nuts and bolts were classified, or because most members of Congress were too cowardly to take this topic on. Your incentive as a legislator is to err on the side of counterterrorism since it’ll shield you from blame in case there’s another big attack. By ducking the issue and rubber-stamping whatever O wants, you get to cover your ass on national security and point the finger at him in case the program runs into political trouble.

But maybe those aren’t the biggest barriers to a surveillance review. Maybe the biggest barrier is that … Congress often doesn’t know what’s going on because Team Hopenchange keeps lying to them.

The most recent example came on March 12, when James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the government was not collecting information about millions of Americans. He later acknowledged that the statement was “erroneous” and apologized, citing a misunderstanding.

On three occasions since 2009, top Justice Department officials said the government’s ability to collect business records in terrorism cases is generally similar to that of law enforcement officials during a grand jury investigation. That comparison, some lawmakers now say, signaled to them that data was being gathered on a case-by-case basis, rather than the records of millions of Americans’ daily communications being vacuumed up in bulk.

In addition, two Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say that even in top-secret briefings, officials “significantly exaggerated” the effectiveness of at least one program that collected data on Americans’ e-mail usage

“The national security state has grown so that any administration is now not upfront with Congress,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s an imbalance that’s grown in our government, and one that we have to cleanse.”…

Wyden said that a number of administration statements have made it “impossible for the public or Congress to have a genuinely informed debate” about government surveillance.

The Post also quotes complaints from Republicans Mick Mulvaney and Jim Sensenbrenner, who, amazingly, seems to have been caught completely off-guard by the executive branch’s aggressive interpretations of the Patriot Act he co-authored. That’s why I’m torn on how much to blame O here. Blame him entirely, by all means, for lying to the people’s representatives, but how seriously can you take congressional grumbles about executive overreach when they helped build the post-9/11 surveillance apparatus in the first place? Even now, it’s hard to tell how much they’ve genuinely been misled and how much of this is them pretending to be shocked, shocked, to find there’s gambling going on in here. You know what the poll numbers look like on surveillance right now; they have every earthly reason to plead ignorance — at least until the next thwarted terror attack, when those poll numbers soften and they can go back to being out-and-proud surveillance-state hawks. In a test of credibility between Obama and Congress, how on earth do you decide?

Two things. First, obviously, Congress is going to have to build some sort of independent oversight arm to watch what the NSA is doing. The intelligence committees, which rely on what the president tells them, ain’t cutting it. There may be constitutional issues with a legislative agency devised to monitor the executive, but that’ll be worked out in court. (At the very least, if it gets that far, the president might be willing to compromise by increasing Congress’s role through other means.) The first order of business is to put political pressure on them to take this up by electing more civil-libertarian pols. Maybe the Rand Paul wing of the party is enough to do that, but I doubt it. You’ll need mainstream conservatives mobilized. Whatever else you think of Snowden, you can thank him for (probably) having moved the needle a bit there. Second, there … has to be some sort of penalty for lying serially to Congress, doesn’t there? At a minimum Clapper should be removed, just to make the point that deceiving the legislative branch on matters of national security (or on anything else) is a matter of grave consequence. Congress does have some institutional self-respect left, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?