WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Tuesday lawmakers are worried about the possibility of further disclosures about the government’s sweeping electronic surveillance and the impact that could have on efforts to combat terrorism.
“We don’t want to make this thing more damaging that it already has become,” Rep. Mike Rogers said ahead of an open hearing the Intelligence Committee scheduled with Army Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency. Rogers said lawmakers, however, “know there are dozens” of terrorist plots that have been foiled by the programs.
Rogers said he expects the government to declassify additional information about the wide-ranging telephone surveillance program and a companion Prism program targeting the Internet and email communications.
Based on information the administration had declassified earlier in the wake of revelations about the program by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, members of Congress feel certain that the eavesdropping should be credited for thwarting an attempted attack on New York City’s subway system, said Rogers, R-Mich., in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.
Rogers previewed the latest public airing of the NSA controversy the morning after President Barack Obama, who is attending the G-8 summit in Ireland, vigorously defended the surveillance programs in a lengthy interview Monday, calling them transparent — even though they are authorized in secret.
“It is transparent,” Obama told PBS’ Charlie Rose in an interview. “That’s why we set up the FISA court,” the president added, referring to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.
Obama said he has named representatives to a privacy and civil liberties oversight board to help in the debate over just how far government data gathering should be allowed to go — a discussion that is complicated by the secrecy surrounding the FISA court, with hearings held at undisclosed locations and with only government lawyers present. The orders that result are all highly classified.
“We’re going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place … that their phone calls aren’t being listened into; their text messages aren’t being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere,” the president said.
A senior administration official said Obama had asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to determine what more information about the two programs could be made public, to help better explain them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Rogers said lawmakers are bewildered about the degree of access that Snowden, who is holed up in Hong Kong, apparently had to the classified information at NSA.
“He lied about his salary, he lied about his capabilities. He lied about his position,” Rogers said of Snowden. Yet, the Intelligence Committee chairman said Congress wants to know how a “relatively low-level employee” could have gained access to such critical data.
He said panel members planned to question Alexander about this during the hearing later Tuesday.
Rogers speculated that in a position analagous to systems administrator, Snowden could have been akin to “a traffic cop at the busiest New York intersection. And every once in a while he was able to look in and grab hold of” sensitive information. But he said that Snowden erred in believing that the NSA “could listen to Americans’ calls. They cannot. And that they can read Americans’ emails. They cannot.”
He slammed Snowden for revealing information “of which he has no understanding” about the risk that such an action poses to the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts.
Rogers also said lawmakers are “a little nervous” about Snowden’s next move.
For his part, Snowden, who leaked documents revealing the scope of the two programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, accused members of Congress and administration officials Monday of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data gathering programs, including pointing to the arrest of the would-be New York subway bomber, Najibullah Zazi, in 2009.
In an online interview with The Guardian in which he posted answers to questions Monday, Snowden said that Zazi could have been caught with narrower, targeted surveillance programs — a point Obama conceded in his interview without mentioning Snowden.
“We might have caught him some other way,” Obama said. “We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn’t go off. But, at the margins, we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs,” he said.
Obama repeated earlier assertions that the NSA programs were a legitimate counterterror tool and that they were completely noninvasive to people with no terror ties — something he hoped to discuss with the privacy and civil liberties board he’d formed. The senior administration official said the president would be meeting with the new privacy board in the coming days.
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