Members of Congress remain divided on whether to rein in the National Security Agency’s broad collection of phone records, with one Democrat saying the Founding Fathers would be “astounded” by the snooping program, while an outspoken New Yorker insisted that the program is fine and could have prevented the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Still, lawmakers in both parties said Sunday that they are reluctant to grant amnesty to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who stole a trove of classified documents before fleeing the country. His leaks to the press about the programs, including the vast collection of call data, or “metadata” without actual conversations, set off a domestic debate about privacy and an international firestorm with diplomatic consequences for the United States.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, called Mr. Snowden a “defector and a traitor,” and made no apologies for the NSA’s programs. He said the agency has not abused its power and suggested that the Sept. 11 attacks could have been thwarted if the phone data collection program were in place at the time.
“I live in New York,” the Republican told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I lost some 150 friends, neighbors and constituents on Sept. 11. If the NSA had had this metadata in 2001, that attack probably would not have happened.”
Lawmakers will face renewed debate about the extent of government snooping, and whether it violates Americans’ constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure, when they return to Washington from their holiday recess.
The administration breathed additional life into the debate Saturday with the release of documents that outline how the bulk collection of phone and Internet data began.
National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper said President George W. Bush authorized the spying shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and extended the records collection through presidential orders until the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required a secret court to authorize the collection, according to The Associated Press.
Last week, a panel that President Obama convened to look into the spying released a report with 46 recommendations about how to reform the programs.
Mr. Obama said he is open to most of the recommendations, including prohibiting the NSA from keeping the phone records. Under one alternative, phone companies would be told to store the metadata and the government could snoop through it only with a secret court’s permission.
The president said he is reviewing all of the intelligence community’s programs and will announce changes in January, but trusts that agents haven’t gone overboard in looking into Americans’ communications.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, noted that the panel found no wrongdoing, so its report serves as a starting point for debate about how and where phone records should be stored.
“That’s what the debate is now,” he told ABC. “I think that puts us on much better ground, much more solid ground. They found no violations, no unlawful activity, no scandal.”
But a spectrum of strong viewpoints suggests that Congress will be forced to tackle the issue, even if there is a lack of consensus.
“This is an invasion of privacy,” Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, told ABC. “If you take the business records of every American, of all of our phone calls, you can get a pretty good idea of what people are doing based on when they call, who they call, from where they call.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the nation’s founders “would be astounded to see what NSA and others are doing.”
“You know, it’s not Snowden,” Mr. Leahy told NBC. “In a way, he’s irrelevant on this. It’s a question of how well this has been looked at and how much the American public knows about it.”
Mr. King said Congress should leave the programs alone.
“What should we rein in?” Mr. King said. “There has not been one abuse cited.”