OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: NSA phone sweep program roils Capitol Hill

But Senate Democrats Mark Udall (Colo.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) expressed concern over the program, demanding the Obama administration defend the actions of the NSA. 

“It concerns me,” said Udall, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The administration, I think, owes it to the American public to comment on what authorities it thinks it has.”

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In March, Wyden specifically asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the NSA was conducting surveillance on American citizens. 

"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" the lawmaker asked during a March 12 hearing. 

In response, Clapper replied quickly: "No, sir." 

News of the NSA program comes as the Obama administration is coming under increasing fire for several incidents, from its handing of the Benghazi terrorist attack to allegations IRS agents intentionally targeted right-wing political groups. 

House passes Pentagon spending plan: It took members of the House Armed Services Committee 16 hours, but the panel eventually put its stamp on its version of the Pentagon's fiscal 2014 defense spending plan. 

The committee approved the draft version of the budget bill early Thursday morning, authorizing $638 billion in defense spending. The budget authorization package passed the committee by a vote of 59 to 2. 

The House bill authorizes $638 billion in defense spending, while also stripping commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts to deal with a rise in military sexual assaults, a prohibition on transferring Guantánamo detainees to the United States and a rejection of new base closures.

Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.) were the only committee members to vote against the final legislation.

The bill provides an increase of $5.1 billion for the war in Afghanistan from the Pentagon request, and it sets base Pentagon spending at $526.6 billion, the same amount that was requested in President Obama’s budget.

That funding level is $52.2 billion over the budget caps set by the White House's sequestration plan. 

Because the panel’s bill was over the budget caps — as are the Senate and Obama administration budgets — the Pentagon could be facing another across-the-board cut in 2014 if sequester is not averted.

“I think in this committee, there’s a growing awareness that sequestration is a fact of life, so whatever we do here today will wind up being reduced by a significant amount,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the committee.

McCain takes aim at Obama's national security bona fides: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has never been a big fan of the Obama White House. But during a Thursday speech in Washington, the former GOP presidential candidate slammed the president's national security bona fides. 

During a speech at the Brookings Institution, McCain said that he has been long “puzzled” over why Obama hasn’t acted more decisively in the Middle East.

“His depiction of the world today stands in contrast to the reality of the world today,” McCain said. “I don't think the president has ever been really comfortable with national security issues. He’s much more comfortable with domestic issues.”

McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race, said he believed Obama began his presidency determined that he “was not going to be [former President] Bush, and then Obama didn’t want to get more involved in the Middle East because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McCain has been Obama’s chief critic on foreign policy, as he’s pressed the Obama administration to do more in Syria for more than a year.

In his speech, McCain said that it was time for an alternative U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and in particular, with the two-year civil war in Syria.

“I am now more concerned than at any time since the darkest days of the war in Iraq that the Middle East is descending into sectarian conflict,” said McCain, who visited with rebel commanders in Syria last week.

McCain once again called for providing “heavy arms” to the Syrian rebels, and called for establishing a safe zone defended by Patriot missiles so the Syrian opposition could get more unified.

“No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria,” he said.

US solider pleads guilty to Afghan massacre: The Army soldier accused of murdering 17 civilians during a deadly shooting spree in Afghanistan plead guilty to murder charges on Thursday. 

The plea deal ensures Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will not receive the death penalty for the shootings, which took place during his most recent deployment to Afghanistan. 

A jury will decide in August whether Bales will spend the rest of his life at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. At the time of the shootings, the 39-year-old Iraqi war veteran had been in Afghanistan since December on his fourth combat tour in 10 years.

During the court martial, military investigators provided physical evidence, including blood samples, tying Bales to the shootings in both villages. 

Other Afghan eyewitnesses, testifying via satellite from the U.S. air base in Kandahar, identified Bales as the shooter.  

During his court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, Bales told the court there was "no good reason in the world" for the shooting rampage, according to CBS News. 

"I've asked that question a million times since then," Bales told Army judge Col. Jeffery Nance on Thursday. "There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did," Bales added. 

Bales’s attorney, John Henry Browne, told reporters Bales suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may have triggered the massacre. "He is broken, he was broken, and we broke him," Browne said.


In Case You Missed It: 

— House demands details of Afghan postwar plan

— Clapper denied NSA surveillance in Senate testimony

— McCain calls for larger US role in Africa 

— GAO says DOD failed to track contractor payments


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