Two high-ranking intelligence officials not only defended the nation's domestic surveillance programs Thursday following a summer of scrutiny but indicated an interest in expanding those programs.
U.S. intelligence agencies now want to create a permanent "lockbox" in which all records of phone calls made inside of the United States would be kept so the agencies can examine them during future investigations.
In a rare unclassified meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper joined lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in condemning recent media criticism of government spying programs following a massive leak of national intelligence by fugitive contractor Edward Snowden. The leak and subsequent media reports revealed that the NSA was collecting the phone and email records of millions of Americans as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.
Both Alexander and Clapper said Americans were misled on the merits and scope of the NSA's powers, making them suspicious of programs deemed vital to national security. The officials said the data collected was merely a list of phone numbers and dates. They insist agencies are not listening in on American phone calls, as some have alleged.
"What we do not do is spy unlawfully on Americans or, for that matter, spy indiscriminately on the citizens of any country," Clapper said. "Unfortunately, this reality has sometimes been obscured in the current debate, and for some this has led to a lowering of trust in the intelligence community."
The committee, composed largely of lawmakers supportive of the NSA surveillance programs, repeatedly chastised Snowden, now hiding in Russia, as a criminal and traitor. U.S. government officials are working with leaders in Russia and China to retrieve Snowden, but Assistant Attorney General James Cole said the effort "has not been successful to date."
"Mr. Snowden may be a hero to our enemies, but he is certainly not a whistle-blower," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. "He fully stole this information, fled the country and then leaked it to the world."
Some Democratic senators on the panel, however, were critical of the NSA programs and said the leaks revealed a lack of oversight that has persisted since the Patriot Act was approved by Congress immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Your joint testimony today blames the media and others, but the fact is, this could have been avoided if the intelligence leadership had been straight with the American people and not acted like the deceptions that were practiced for years could last forever," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The committee will meet again next week to complete work on legislation intended to reform the two surveillance programs that allow the NSA to monitor phone records domestically and abroad. While Clapper said he thought it was a healthy exercise to review these programs, he warned that America's enemies will be watching how the law is changed.
"Transparency, as I said before, is a two-edged sword," Clapper said. "It's transparent for the American people; it's transparent for adversaries too."
Even as Congress weighs placing new restrictions on NSA surveillance, the intelligence community believes it has the authority to expand those programs so that the NSA can keep a record of all phone calls it could then track whenever it felt it was needed to identify potential terrorists.
"I believe it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it," Alexander said. Alexander asserted that if the NSA had had that kind of access to phone records before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they would have known hijacker Khalid al-Nihdhar was already in the U.S. by intercepting communications with him from the Middle East.
"We had no idea, because we did not have the other end of that communication nor the phone number, that Midhar was in San Diego," Alexander said. "In my opinion, if we had had that prior to 9/11, we would have known about the plot. That's my personal opinion."