Officials defend NSA, decry Snowden

Senators squared off Wednesday against Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence agency heads over controversial snooping by the National Security Agency (NSA).

In separate hearings on Capitol Hill, officials said revelations about the contested spying programs had damaged the country’s security, though they pledged to continue with reforms to quell public outrage.

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Leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were the “most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He urged Snowden “and his accomplices” to “facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.”

Separately, Holder told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee that the NSA has a “great deal of oversight, and the oversight has yielded issues that have been resolved.”

Though there have been abuses of the agency’s surveillance authority, “those have all been corrected once brought to the attention of the NSA,” he added.

Wednesday’s hearings were the first time Clapper and Holder had testified before Congress since President Obama announced plans to rein in some of the NSA’s most controversial practices. The two officials are tasked with developing additional adjustments to the country’s spy programs. 

The proposed changes, many of which require congressional action, have been met with mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. 

Reformist lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have labeled the president’s attempts as a good start but say more needs to be done. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) have teamed up to push the USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA's bulk collection of phone records. 

More hawkish lawmakers have defended the surveillance, which they say has helped protect U.S. citizens.

There have been no recent terror attacks against the United States, noted Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been skeptical of changing the NSA too much.

“I’m concerned that this success has led to a popular misconception that the threat has diminished. It has not,” she said. “In fact, terrorism is at an all-time high worldwide.”

Clapper and Holder commended some of the planned reforms to open up the NSA and give the public more details about its operations.

“The major takeaway for us, certainly for me, from the past several months is that we must lean in the direction of transparency, wherever and whenever we can,” Clapper said. “With greater transparency about these intelligence programs, the American people may be more likely to accept them.”

This week, Holder and Clapper announced that communications companies would be able to reveal more details about the requests for information they get from the government. The agreement partially lifts a gag order that companies had complained prevented them from being honest with their customers. 

“Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers,” Holder said.

The Intelligence Committee hearing highlighted rising tension between the intelligence community and skeptical lawmakers on a number of fronts.

The American public’s trust in the intelligence community “has been seriously undermined by senior officials’ reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements that senior officials made to the American people,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has been one of the most vocal critics of the NSA’s activities.

Last year, Wyden publicly asked Clapper whether or not the U.S. collected “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.”

Clapper said that the government did not, a statement that disclosures about the NSA have proven false.

“I don’t think this culture of misinformation can be easily fixed,” Wyden told him on Wednesday.

Several Democratic senators also took aim at CIA Director John Brennan, pressing him to allow the public release of the committee’s 6,300-page classified report” on Bush-era "enhanced interrogation."

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) accused Brennan of making statements “meant to intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight,” while Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Brennan got into a heated exchange over Brennan’s response to the committee’s findings.

But there was also plenty of support for the government's surveillance efforts.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, said that Snowden’s disclosures had caused more harm than good.

The “constant stream” of news articles and released documents, he said, “has without a doubt compromised our national security and complicated our foreign partnerships.”

While acknowledging the calls for transparency, spy agency leaders said Snowden’s leak of 200,000 classified documents would have serious consequences for the country’s safety. Terrorists have learned how they are being watched and are already changing their habits, they said.

In the last six or eight months, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said he has seen that the country’s enemies have “an awareness of our ability to monitor communications, and specific instances where they’ve changed the way that they communicate to avoid being surveiled or be subject to our surveillance tactics. “

“It certainly puts us at risk of missing something that we are trying to see, which could lead to putting us at risk of an attack,” he said.

Jeremy Herb contributed.

The original story was published at 12:23 p.m. and has since been updated.