WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the staunchest critics of government surveillance programs said Tuesday 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 are valuable tools in counterterror and 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.
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 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 he believed Wyden's question was "not answerable necessarily, by a simple yes or no."
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.