Members of Congress are suddenly finding themselves more informed than ever about a scandalous NSA surveillance program in the wake of an intelligence leak that has embarrassed the United States government.
Lawmakers in Washington, DC were briefed on the program late Tuesday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and legal and intelligence officials, according to the Associated Press, in what marked the first time that Congress came face-to-face with the players closest to the National Security Administration scandal since The Guardian began publishing leaked NSA documents last Thursday.
"People aren't satisfied," Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania) told the AP after Tuesday night’s briefing "More detail needs to come out."
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Maryland), a defender of the surveillance program, even told AP that Congress should take the time to reassess the NSA’s policies.
"Congress needs to debate this issue and determine what tools we give to our intelligence community to protect us from a terrorist attack," he said. "Really it's a debate between public safety, how far we go with public safety and protecting us from terrorist attacks versus how far we go on the other side."
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander will answer questions from the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee on Wednesday afternoon, and the Senate and House intelligence committees will be briefed on the programs again Thursday. So far, though, shot-callers in Washington seem largely split on perhaps the first example to surface so far of the Obama administration’s attempt to weigh security with privacy in its war against terror.
“As you heard the president say on Friday, he believes that we must strike a balance between our security interests and our desire for privacy,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier this week when defending the program. “He made clear that you cannot have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy, and thus we need to find that balance.”
The leaked documents, released by the Guardian last week and attributed to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, showed that the NSA has requested the phone records for the millions of Verizon customers in the US regularly and also taps into the servers of nine major Internet entities in order to intercept communications when investigating alleged terrorism. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration on Tuesday over the mass call tracking program, labeling the “unprecedented mass surveillance” of phone calls as a violation of “Americans' constitutional rights of free speech, association and privacy.”
The ACLU is asking the government to cease the mass call tracking program and purge its records immediately. Meanwhile, though, members of Congress like Murphy and Ruppersberger are simply asking for answers.
But other lawmakers have attempted to discuss the topic before, which in it of itself is becoming a whole other issue erupting on the Hill. On March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the NSA does not gather "any type of data at all on millions of Americans.” That was question posed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), at least, who in response was told by Clapper, "No, sir.”
“Not wittingly,” Clapper continued. “There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."
Following leaked evidence showing otherwise, Sen. Wyden issued a statement explaining his line of questioning:
“So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer,” Wyden wrote. “Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives."
Sen. Wyden has long been critical of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, a law that allows the government to collect data on the communications of Americans if they are reasonably thought to be communication with persons located outside of the US.
"When the public finds out that these secret interpretations are so dramatically different than what the public law says, I think there's going to be extraordinary anger in the country," Wyden told HuffPost Live earlier this year. "Because it's one thing to have debates about laws... but we assume that the law itself is public."
On Sunday, Clapper told NBC News that he responded to Wyden’s question while on the stand with “what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner.” There have since been calls for Clapper’s resignation or termination from the role of DNI.