Lawmakers planning bill to limit contractor access to NSA secrets

Lawmakers plan to draft legislation that would limit the access that federal contractors have to highly classified information, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence panel said Thursday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Congress is considering changes to the rules for contractors in the wake of illegally leaked details about domestic intelligence programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA). 

"We will consider changes," Feinstein told reporters after a classified briefing with administration officials on the NSA leaks. 

"We will certainly have legislation which will limit [or] prevent contractors from handling highly classified data," she said.

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Private contractors working for U.S. intelligence agencies have come under intense scrutiny since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed details of two clandestine surveillance programs. 

One program, code-named PRISM, was designed to pull data from tech companies on foreign Internet users. The second program allowed the NSA to sweep so-called “meta-data” from cellphones on the Verizon network. 

Feinstein has called Snowden's actions an “an act of treason,” and other lawmakers have condemned the leaks.

The disclosures have shaken the military-industrial complex, raising questions about whether the government has lost control over who is cleared to see sensitive information.

The leaks could spur Congress, and possibly the White House, to rein in civilian and non-government employees who participate in U.S. national security programs.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking member on the Senate intel committee, said after the briefing that it’s clear the U.S. needs to "do a better job of making sure that our top secret clearances go to only those individuals that deserve it."

"I think there are some changes that we’re going to look at, but I don’t know that it needs to be done legislatively," Chambliss said. "We just have to wait and see."

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said there were still serious questions on how Snowden "ended up with access to some of the most sensitive data in American security."

"Who in the world made that decision?" he added. "I want to know more about [Snowden], but what I have learned so far is troubling."

NSA counterintelligence officials are conducting a “damage assessment” to see what other top-secret information Snowden gained access to during his time with the agency.

“The more we [learn] the more dangerous this situation becomes,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Thursday after NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander briefed House members on the situation.

Snowden had been working for three months as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton when he leaked details of the NSA programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Shortly after the leaks, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper defended the work being done by the civilian contracting corps in the intelligence community.

In a government-wide message sent Wednesday, Clapper assured contractors that blowback from the NSA leaks would not affect them, and praised their work on intelligence operations.

"Contractors are an integral part of our workforce and are critical to our national security efforts," Clapper said in the message, according to reports.

"No matter what color badge you wear, you prove every day how much you care about our nation," the intelligence chief added.

A 2013 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said half of the 1.4 million people who hold top-secret clearance are contractors or non-government employees.

Another 147,000 civilians have been cleared for top-secret clearance by the ODNI, according to the report.

— Jordy Yager contributed to this report

This story was updated at 5:22 p.m.