Lawmakers say NSA briefing didn't address privacy concerns

Lawmakers' concerns over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs were not alleviated after the full House received a briefing on the programs Tuesday. [WATCH VIDEO]

Lawmakers skeptical of the NSA’s phone and Internet data collection programs said their questions largely were not answered by the briefing with senior Justice, NSA and FBI officials.

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The phone metadata surveillance and PRISM Internet monitoring programs were revealed in stories last week by The Guardian and The Washington Post, who received information from a 29-year-old NSA contractor employee.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been critical of Obama's surveillance programs, saying over the weekend that the administration has "gone too far" in eroding privacy rights.

Asked after Tuesday's briefing if he still has those concerns, Cummings said simply, "Yes."

"Most of the members that spoke seemed to be pretty concerned," he added.

Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) has been among the loudest critics of the administration's claims that it had briefed all members of Congress on the surveillance programs. Long said after Tuesday's briefing that that consternation has now been alleviated, but he still has "grave concerns" about the programs themselves.

"There's too many questions that need to be answered on the whole thing to give you a good dissertation," he said.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said that felt like he had “more questions” after the briefing. “But I can’t say what they are,” he said.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said that he still wanted to know why the Foreign Intelligence Security Act courts that oversee the NSA programs aren’t put in charge of storing the data.

“Obviously those with the greatest concerns for the privacy area are asking more of the questions,” Sherman said.

“Right now, we have a situation where the executive branch is getting a billion records a day, and we’re told they would not query that data except pursuant to very clear standards,” he said. “But we don’t have courts making sure those standards are always followed.”

House Intelligence Committee leaders defended the program and the manner that lawmakers have been briefed about the surveillance.

“What really came out of it was we need as Congress to move forward because of this incident that has occurred and debate the issue,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

“Chairman [Mike] Rogers (R-Mich.) and I are beginning do some deep diving ourselves to the process to make sure it was followed.”

Lawmakers said briefers declined to discuss the whereabouts of or investigation into Edward Snowden, who said he was the source of the leak, citing the ongoing investigation.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday's briefing is just the first step in what will be a much longer congressional examination of the administration's programs. The Democratic whip, who suggested earlier in the day that Congress might need to play a larger oversight role in the nation's anti-terror efforts, said after the briefing that he remains undecided on that issue.

"I need to discuss it more. I need to come to grips with the ramifications of our policy," he said. "I haven't fully formed my questions that I want to get answered."

Still, Hoyer defended the legality of the spying programs under Obama saying, "I don't think there was any doubt that this was authorized by law."

Intelligence Committee leaders have said that lawmakers had access to the classified information had they requested briefings. But Sherman argued that the nature and scope of the program was essentially hidden, even if it was available.

“If somewhere on page 9,412 was the disclosure of this program, it was well concealed under the other 9,000 pages,” Sherman said.

— Carlo Muñoz contributed.