Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday defended the Obama administration's domestic spying programs, arguing that, unlike the secret surveillance under President George W. Bush, the current programs appear legal. [WATCH VIDEO]
"The difference between this program and the Bush program [is that] the Bush program was not sanctioned by law; this is pursuant to law," Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol. "I think that's a very important distinction that some people don't draw, but they ought to draw."
Hoyer, the Democratic whip, joined a growing list of congressional leaders from both parties in arguing that Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor who leaked information about the spying programs, has jeopardized national security.
"This certainly compromises the intelligence gathering abilities of the United States and to that extent is helpful to … those who would cause us harm," he said.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has come under the spotlight in the last week after The Guardian revealed that the agency is collecting data related to all phone calls — foreign and domestic — made on the Verizon network. The Guardian and The Washington Post also uncovered a separate NSA program, dubbed PRISM, that's gathering Internet data from foreign users.
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The news has relaunched the debate over how far the government should be allowed to go to protect Americans from terrorist threats.
Under the Bush administration, the NSA came under fire after it was revealed that the agency was tapping domestic phone calls without a court order. By contrast, the Obama administration received the authority to conduct its surveillance from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to reports.
In another distinction, the NSA under Bush was said to monitor the content of the communications it was intercepting — a level of detail the Obama administration has reportedly not sought in its blanket sweeps.
Some members of Congress are grumbling that the administration has left them in the dark about the existence of the spying programs. But Hoyer on Tuesday defended the process by which Congress is informed of security issues, saying the administration has briefed the members of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees on the programs.
"Whether all 535 members were personally briefed, I doubt that. That's not the process," Hoyer said. "If members of Congress wanted a briefing — obviously all members of Congress have secret clearances … they could get it."
Hoyer said there was "a general meeting" on the Patriot Act for all members in May 2011, and the NSA programs "could well have been a part of that."
"My presumption is, although I don't have specific memory of it, that there was some reference to interception of communications at that time," he said. "But to the extent of what's been going on, I learned about it in the press."
The comments arrive as some liberal House Democrats — who have long criticized the Patriot Act as granting too much power to the president — are eying legislation to scale back executive surveillance powers.
Hoyer said it's too early to say whether Congress should look at tweaking the law to grant Congress more oversight of the administration's surveillance programs.
"It is a worthy question to pursue," Hoyer said. "I want to have a much fuller understanding [of the programs]. … We have a responsibility to look at that."
Hoyer cited a recent poll indicating that most Americans appear willing to sacrifice some privacy for the sake of security.
"While they're concerned about their privacy, they're more concerned about their security. And they see the benefit of making sure that authorities have enough information to interdict and to prevent terrorist acts," Hoyer said. "Having said that, Americans feel very strongly about their civil liberties and privacy, as do I, and we need to ensure the proper oversight."
Both the House and Senate will be briefed Tuesday by officials from the NSA, FBI and DOJ, among other agencies.
This post was updated at 3:54 p.m.