The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees defended the National Security Agency on "Face the Nation" Sunday, arguing that the agency has merely been following the directions given to them by political leaders to keep the country safe. However, the two disagree on whether the scope of the agency's work should change going forward.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a "review of the intelligence framework" to assess the priorities.
Feinstein explained that the agency's priorities -- counter terrorism, support of overseas military, prevention of nuclear counter-proliferation, hard targets and cyber spying -- are set by the administration, with input from the president, the National Security Council and other cabinet members. The president is already undertaking a review, which Feinstein said should include what information gets collected and what the criteria are for seeking that information.
But Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., Feinstein's counterpart at the head of the House Intelligence Committee, argued that the NSA is just doing what it takes to protect the U.S. against a wide range of threats, from intellectual property theft, attacks on financial institutions and the spread of al Qaeda.
"The question isn't how you reign in the NSA," Rogers said.
Instead, he said, the oversight committees should work to ensure whether they are following the law and protecting civil liberties.
"It is the NSA, the CIA and others' charge to make that zero [deaths from terrorist attacks] happen here. Zero. That's our standard. And so, what we've asked them to do is go out and collect information that protects America," Rogers said. He said the agency's critics were "seized up by this hyper partisanship" and said President Obama was "like a deer caught in headlights" in dealing with the recent revelations about the NSA's work.
"I think there are going to be some best actor awards coming out of the White House this year," Rogers said of Mr. Obama. His frustration extended to European leaders - he said they should receive "best supporting actor awards" - who have expressed outrage at U.S. spying, even though they themselves are engaged in the same thing.
"Espionage is a French word, after all," Rogers said.
Feinstein has been more critical of reports that the U.S. monitored the communications of foreign leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I think where allies are close, tapping the private phones of theirs - particularly of the leader, the leader is what I'm talking about - has much more political liability than probably intelligence viability," she said, adding the program should be reexamined.
Mr. Obama has said he didn't know about the surveillance on foreign leaders, which former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said was possible. Still, Hayden said that monitoring the "leadership intentions" of foreign heads of state has long been an intelligence priority, so "it's impossible for me to imagine that the NSC, the administration, the White House didn't know."
But the fact that they didn't tell the president about the spying was indicative of the fact that "this wasn't exceptional. This is what we were expected to do," Hayden said.
"I would just assume that almost all other nations in the world conduct espionage and what we do as a prudent measure is defend ourselves," he added.
Neither Feinstein nor Rogers had much sympathy for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor accused of stealing and leaking thousands of documents before fleeing to Moscow. A German lawmaker who met with Snowden said Friday that he is interested in traveling to Germany to testify about U.S. spying.
The answer from Feinstein and Rogers: Neither the U.S. nor Germany should not give him clemency to investigate the NSA. Both said that if Snowden wanted to be a whistleblower about U.S. intelligence collection, he should have raised those concerns to U.S. authorities in a different fashion.
"He had an opportunity, if what he was was a whistleblower, to pick up the phone and call the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and say, 'Look, I have some information you ought to see,' and we would certainly see him," Feinstein said. "That didn't happen, and now he's done this enormous disservice to our country."
Rogers concurred. "He needs to come back and own up," he said. "We can have those conversations if he believes there are vulnerabilities in the system he'd like to disclose. You don't do it by committing a crime that puts soldiers' lives at risk in places like Afghanistan."
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