WASHINGTON — One of the staunchest critics of government surveillance programs said Tuesday that the national intelligence director did not give him a straight answer last March when he asked whether the National Security Agency collects any data on millions of Americans.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called for hearings to discuss two recently revealed NSA programs that collect billions of telephone numbers and Internet usage daily. He was also among a group of senators who introduced legislation Tuesday to force the government to declassify opinions of a secret court that authorizes the surveillance.
But other key members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, say the programs were valuable tools in counterterror and that the former NSA contractor who leaked them is a traitor. President Barack Obama has vigorously defended the program, saying Americans must balance privacy and security to protect the country from terrorists.
Wyden, however, complained that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, during a Senate Intelligence hearing in March about threats the U.S. faces from around the world, was less than forthcoming.
"The American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives," Wyden said in a statement.
Wyden said he wanted to know the scope of the top secret surveillance programs, and privately asked NSA Director Keith Alexander for clarity. When he did not get a satisfactory answer, Wyden said he alerted Clapper's office a day early that he would ask the same question at the public hearing.
"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden asked Clapper at the March 12 hearing.
"No, sir," Clapper answered.
"It does not?" Wyden pressed.
Clapper quickly and haltingly softened his answer. "Not wittingly," he said. "There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect — but not wittingly."
Wyden said he also gave Clapper a chance to amend his answer.
A spokesman for Clapper did not have an immediate response on Tuesday, but the intelligence director told NBC that he believed Wyden's question was "not answerable necessarily, by a simple yes or no." Officials generally do not discuss classified information in public hearings, reserving discussion on top-secret programs for closed sessions where they will not be revealed to adversaries.
"So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, 'No,'" Clapper said.
The programs that do sweep up such information were revealed last week by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, and Clapper has since taken the unusual step of declassifying some of the previously top-secret details to help the administration mount a public defense of the surveillance as a necessary step to protect Americans.
One of the NSA programs gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records to search for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad. The other allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet companies and gather all communications to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
A new poll by the Post and the Pew Research Center found Americans generally prioritize the government's need to investigate terrorist threats over the need to protect personal privacy, and most (56 percent) considered the NSA's collection of Americans' telephone call records an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism. Americans were more closely divided on whether the government should be able to monitor email and other online activities to prevent future terrorist attacks, with 52 percent opposed to that.
The poll was conducted June 6-9, as many details of the NSA's data collection efforts were still being revealed.
A senior U.S. intelligence official on Monday said there were no plans to scrap the programs. Despite backlash from overseas allies and American privacy advocates, the programs continue to receive widespread, if cautious, support within Congress as an indispensable tool for protecting Americans from terrorists. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive security issue.
Wyden said lawmakers must have clear and direct answers to questions in order to conduct oversight. "This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren't getting straight answers to direct questions," he said in the statement.
The Justice Department is weighing whether to charge the American man who claims to have given documents about the classified programs to journalists. The whereabouts of Edward Snowden, 29, were not immediately known. He was last in Hong Kong, where he hopes to avoid being extradited to the United States for prosecution.
The NSA contractor for whom he worked, Booz Allen Hamilton, announced Tuesday that they had fired Snowden after less than three months on the job.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament planned to debate the spy programs Tuesday and whether they have violated local privacy protections. EU officials in Brussels pledged to seek answers from U.S. diplomats at a trans-Atlantic ministerial meeting in Dublin later this week.
The global scrutiny comes as other lawmakers including Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California accuse Snowden of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.
Officials in Germany and the European Union issued calm but firm complaints Monday over two National Security Agency programs that target suspicious foreign messages — potentially including phone numbers, email, images, video and other online communications transmitted through U.S. providers. The chief British diplomat felt it necessary to try to assure Parliament that the spy programs do not encroach on U.K. privacy laws.
And in Washington, members of Congress said they would take a new look at potential ways to keep the U.S. safe from terror attacks without giving up privacy protections that critics charge are at risk with the government's current authority to broadly sweep up personal communications.
"There's very little trust in the government, and that's for good reason," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. "We're our own worst enemy."
House Speaker John Boehner, however, said he believes President Barack Obama has fully explained why the program is needed. He told ABC's "Good Morning America" Tuesday that "the disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are and it's a giant violation of the law." He called Snowden a "traitor."
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was considering how Congress could limit the amount of data spy agencies seize from telephone and Internet companies — including restricting the information to be released only on an as-needed basis.
"It's a little unsettling to have this massive data in the government's possession," King said.
Snowden is a former CIA employee who later joined Booz Allen, where the papers said he gained access to the surveillance. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine said, it was "absolutely shocking" that a 29-year-old with limited experience would have access to this material.
FBI agents on Monday visited the home of Snowden's father, Lonnie Snowden, in Upper Macungie Township, Pa. The FBI in Philadelphia declined to comment.
The first explosive document Snowden revealed was a top secret court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that granted a three-month renewal for a massive collection of American phone records. That order was signed April 25. The Guardian's first story on the court order was published June 5.
Snowden also gave the Post and the Guardian a PowerPoint presentation on another secret program that collects online usage by the nine Internet providers. The U.S. government says it uses that information only to track foreigners' use overseas.
It was unclear when or if Snowden would be extradited.
"All of the options, as he put it, are bad options," Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the phone-tracking program and interviewed Snowden extensively, told The Associated Press on Monday. He said Snowden decided to release details of the programs out of shock and anger over the sheer scope of the government's privacy invasions.
"It was his choice to publicly unveil himself," Greenwald told the AP in Hong Kong. "He recognized that even if he hadn't publicly unveiled himself, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. government discovered that it was he who had been responsible for these disclosures, and he made peace with that. ... He's very steadfast and resolute about the fact that he did the right thing."
Greenwald said he had more documents from Snowden and expected "more significant revelations" about NSA.
Although Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., the document has some exceptions, including for crimes deemed political. Any negotiations about his possible handover will involve Beijing, but some analysts believe China is unlikely to want to jeopardize its relationship with Washington over someone it would consider of little political interest.
Snowden also told The Guardian that he may seek asylum in Iceland, which has strong free-speech protections and a tradition of providing a haven for the outspoken and the outcast.
The Justice Department is investigating whether his disclosures were a criminal offense — a matter that's not always clear-cut under U.S. federal law.
A second senior intelligence official said Snowden would have had to have signed a non-disclosure agreement to gain access to the top secret data. That suggests he could be prosecuted for violating that agreement. Penalties could range from a few years to life in prison. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the process of accessing classified materials more frankly.
The leak came to light as Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was being tried in military court under federal espionage and computer fraud laws for releasing classified documents to WikiLeaks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other items. The most serious charge against him was aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence. But the military operates under a different legal system.
If Snowden is forced to return to the United States to face charges, whistle-blower advocates said Monday that they would raise money for his legal defense.
Clapper has ordered an internal review to assess how much damage the disclosures created. Intelligence experts say terrorist suspects and others seeking to attack the U.S. all but certainly will find alternate ways to communicate instead of relying on systems that now are widely known to be under surveillance.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was open for a discussion about the spy programs, both with allies and in Congress. His administration has aggressively defended the two programs and credited them with helping stop at least two terrorist attacks, including one in New York City.
Privacy rights advocates say Obama has gone too far. The American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School filed legal action Monday to force a secret U.S. court to make public its opinions justifying the scope of some of the surveillance, calling the programs "shockingly broad." And conservative lawyer Larry Klayman filed a separate lawsuit against the Obama administration, claiming he and others have been harmed by the government's collection of as many as 3 billion phone numbers each day.
Army records indicate Snowden enlisted in the Army around May 2004 and was discharged that September.
"He attempted to qualify to become a Special Forces soldier but did not complete the requisite training and was administratively discharged from the Army," Col. David H. Patterson Jr., an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said in a statement late Monday.