Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is under fire for statements he made before Congress that suggested he had no knowledge about federal government programs that collected data on millions of Americans’ phone calls and Internet activities.
In March, Clapper said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that he was not aware that the National Security Agency was involved in such large-scale efforts.
The questioning of Clapper’s statements follow blockbuster news last week that the federal government has since 9/11 been logging millions, perhaps billions, of calls and Internet activities and as the NSA’s top official goes before the same Senate committee for a closed-door briefing on the issue.
"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Oregon Republican Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper at the March 12 hearing.
"No, sir," Clapper responded.
"It does not?" Wyden pressed.
Clapper recanted and said: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect -- but not wittingly."
Wyden, one of the staunchest critics of government surveillance programs, said Tuesday that Clapper did not give him a straight answer and called for hearings to discuss the two recently-revealed NSA programs that collect billions of telephone numbers and Internet usage daily.
Wyden 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.
"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 first asked NSA Director Keith Alexander for clarity about data collecting. And 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.
Meanwhile, the 29-year-old American who says he’s the source of the leaks remains in hiding.
Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and NSA contract worker, was in a Hong Kong hotel but reportedly checked out after the release of a video Sunday in which he claimed to be the source of the U.S. surveillance leaks.
The Justice Department said Sunday it is considering charges against Snowden, days after The Guardian and The Washington Post published stories about the phone calls logging and an NSA-led program, code-named PRISM, that vacuumed email, instant messages and other Internet activities.
Snowden has fled to Hong Kong in hopes of escaping criminal charges as lawmakers including Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California accuse him of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.
On Tuesday, a day after Snowden checked out of the trendy hotel in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, large photos of his face were splashed on most Hong Kong newspapers with headlines such as "Deep Throat Hides in HK," and "World's Most Wanted Man Breaks Cover in Hong Kong."
If and when the Justice Department charges Snowden, its next step will likely be to ask the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, for a provisional request to arrest him pending extradition to the United States.
Members of Congress said they will take a new look at 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."
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Monday there were no plans to scrap the federal data-mining programs that continues to receive widespread if cautious support within Congress, despite the backlash. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive security issue.
Clapper has also 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.
In other developments, one of the reporters who exposed the classified surveillance programs said Tuesday he is planning on disclosing more "significant revelations" soon.
Glenn Greenwald, of The Guardian, said the paper is deciding when to release the next story based on information in documents reportedly given him by Snowden.
Greenwald claims "dozens" of stories can be generated from the documents, and that the Guardian plans to pursue all of them.
Snowden faces decades in jail for the disclosures if the U.S. can extradite him. He says his sole motive was to “inform the public.”
In a video that appeared on the Guardian’s website, Snowden said the surveillance programs are wide open to abuse.
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector. Anywhere," he said. "I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal e-mail."
Snowden worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and says he was a CIA technical assistant.
Booz Allen released a statement Tuesday saying Snowden has been fired and that he was paid $122,000 annually, not $200,000 as widely reported.
Snowden had worked for Booz Allen as a contractor in Hawaii for less than three months. Company officials have promised to work with investigators.
Snowden told the Guardian he believes the government could try to charge him with treason under the Espionage Act.
But Mark Zaid, a national security attorney who represents whistle-blowers, said such a move would require the government to prove he had intent to betray the United States. Snowden has said his “sole motive” was to inform the public and spur debate.
In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided to The Guardian, Snowden wrote: "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."
Snowden told The Post he was not going to hide.
"Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest," he said in the interview published Sunday. Snowden said he would "ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy."
Snowden wants to seek asylum outside the United States, possibly in Iceland, The Guardian reports.
Washington officials have acknowledged all branches of the federal government — Congress, the White House and federal courts — knew about the collection of data under the Patriot Act.
PRISM allows the federal government to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL, scooping out emails, video chats, instant messages and more to track foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism or espionage.
The chief executives of Facebook and Google have said their companies were not aware of the data grab.
Officials say the government is not listening to any of the phone calls, only logging the numbers.
President Obama, Clapper and others also have said the programs are subject to strict supervision of a secret court.
Obama said Friday that the programs have made a difference in tracking terrorists and are not tantamount to "Big Brother."
The president acknowledged the U.S. government is collecting reams of phone records, including phone numbers and the duration of calls, but said this does not include listening to calls or gathering the names of callers.
"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
However, the president said he welcomes a debate on that issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.