Lawmakers concerned about U.S. surveillance programs
WASHINGTON — The former spy agency contractor who fled to Hong Kong to leak U.S. secrets said he’s not there to hide from justice and has faith in “the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”
“I am neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American,” Edward Snowden declared to the South China Morning Post about his disclosures of top secret surveillance programs that have rocked Washington.
A phalanx of FBI, legal and intelligence officials briefed the entire House on Tuesday in the latest attempt to soothe outrage over yearslong National Security Agency programs that collect millions of Americans’ phone and Internet records. Since they were revealed last week, the programs have provoked distrust in the Obama administration from around the world.
House members were told not to disclose information they heard in the briefing because it is classified. Several said they left with unanswered questions.
“People aren’t satisfied,” Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said as he left the briefing Tuesday. “More detail needs to come out.”
While many rank-and-file members of Congress have expressed anger and bewilderment, there is apparently very little appetite among key leaders and intelligence committee chiefs to pursue any action. Most have expressed support for the programs as invaluable counterterror tools and some have labeled Snowden a “traitor.”
Snowden said in the interview published today that he hasn’t dared contact his family or his girlfriend since coming forward as the leaker of NSA documents.
“I am worried about the pressure they are feeling from the FBI,” he said.
The FBI did visit his father’s house in Pennsylvania on Monday.
Snowden resurfaced in the Chinese newspaper after dropping out of sight since Sunday. Snowden said he wanted to fight the U.S. government in Hong Kong’s courts and would stay unless “asked to leave.” Hong Kong is a Chinese autonomous region that maintains a Western-style legal system and freedom of speech.
U.S. law enforcement officials have said they are building a case against Snowden but have yet to bring charges. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States; there are exceptions in cases of political persecution or where there are concerns over cruel or humiliating treatment.
Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members have been routinely briefed about the spy programs, officials said, and Congress has at least twice renewed laws approving them. But the disclosure of their sheer scope stunned some lawmakers, shocked foreign allies from nations with strict privacy protections and emboldened civil liberties advocates who long have accused the government of being too invasive in the name of national security.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has complained that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper misled a Senate committee in March by denying that the NSA collects data on millions of Americans. On Wednesday, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., called for Clapper to resign.
“Congress can’t make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements,” Amash posted on Facebook.
Some Congress members acknowledged they’d been caught unawares by the scope of the programs, having skipped previous briefings by the intelligence committees.
“I think Congress has really found itself a little bit asleep at the wheel,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said.
Many leaving the forum declared themselves disturbed by what they’d heard — and in need of more answers.
“Congress needs to debate this issue and determine what tools we give to our intelligence community to protect us from a terrorist attack,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and a backer of the surveillance. “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.”
He said his panel and the House Judiciary Committee will examine what has happened and see whether there are recommendations to be made for the future.
The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee will get to question the head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, today, and the Senate and House intelligence committees will be briefed on the programs again Thursday.
The country’s main civil liberties organization wasn’t buying the administration’s explanations, filing the most significant lawsuit against the massive phone record collection program so far. The American Civil Liberties Union and its New York chapter sued the federal government Tuesday in New York, asking a court to demand that the Obama administration end the program and purge the records it has collected.
The ACLU is claiming standing as a customer of Verizon, which was identified last week as the phone company the government had ordered to turn over daily records of calls made by all its customers.
Polls of U.S. public opinion show a mixed response to the controversy. A poll by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center conducted over the weekend found Americans generally prioritize the government’s need to investigate terrorist threats over the need to protect personal privacy.
But a CBS News poll conducted Sunday-Monday showed that while most approve of government collection of phone records of Americans suspected of terrorist activity and Internet activities of foreigners, a majority disapproved of federal agencies collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans. Thirty percent agreed with the government’s assessment that the revelation of the programs would hurt the U.S.’ ability to prevent future terrorist attacks, while 57 percent said it would have no impact.