WASHINGTON — Dogged by fear and confusion about sweeping spy programs, intelligence officials sought to convince House lawmakers in an unusual briefing Tuesday that the government's years-long collection of phone records and Internet usage is necessary for protecting Americans — and does not trample on their privacy rights.
But the country's main civil liberties organization wasn't buying it, filing the most significant lawsuit against the massive phone record collection program so far. The American Civil Liberties Union and its New York chapter sued the federal government Tuesday in New York, asking a court to demand that the Obama administration end the program and purge the records it has collected.
The ACLU is claiming standing as a customer of Verizon, which was identified last week as the phone company the government had ordered to turn over daily records of calls made by all its customers.
The parade of FBI and intelligence officials who briefed the entire House on Tuesday was the latest attempt to soothe outrage over National Security Agency programs which collect billions of Americans' phone and Internet records. Since they were revealed last week, the programs have spurred distrust in the Obama administration from across the globe.
Several key lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, refocused the furor Tuesday on the elusive 29-year-old former intelligence contractor who is claiming responsibility for revealing the surveillance programs to two newspapers. Boehner joined others in calling Edward Snowden a "traitor."
But attempts to defend the NSA systems by a leading Republican senator who supports them highlighted how confusingly intricate the programs are — even to the lawmakers who follow the issue closely.
Explaining the programs to reporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary committees, initially described how the NSA uses pattern analysis of millions of phone calls from the United States, even if those numbers have no known connection to terrorism. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has vigorously maintained that there are strict limits on the programs to prevent intruding on Americans' privacy, and senior officials quickly denied Graham's description.
Graham later said he misspoke and that Clapper was right: The phone records are only accessed if there is a known connection to terrorism.
House lawmakers had more questions and, in many cases, more concerns about the level of surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies Tuesday after FBI, Justice and other intelligence officials briefed them on the two NSA programs.
"Really it's a debate between public safety, how far we go with public safety and protecting us from terrorist attacks versus how far we go on the other side," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "Congress needs to debate this issue."
He said his panel and the Judiciary Committee would examine what has happened and see whether there are recommendations for the future.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., like many members, said he was unaware of the scope of the data collection.
"I did not know 1 billion records a day were coming under the control of the federal executive branch," Sherman said.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said there was a lot of heated discussion and that, "Congress didn't feel like they were informed."
Cohen conceded many lawmakers had failed to attend classified briefings in previous years where they could have learned more. "I think Congress has really found itself a little bit asleep at the wheel," he said.
One of the Senate's staunchest critics of the surveillance programs put Clapper in the crosshairs, accusing him of not being truthful in March when he asked during a Senate hearing whether the NSA collects any data on millions of Americans. Clapper said it did not. Officials generally do not discuss classified information in public settings, reserving discussion on top-secret programs for closed sessions with lawmakers where they will not be revealed to adversaries.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he had been dissatisfied with the NSA's answers to his questions and had given Clapper a day's advance notice prior to the hearing to prepare an answer. Not fully believing Clapper's public denial of the program, Wyden said he asked Clapper privately afterward whether he wanted to stick with a firm 'no' to the question.
On Tuesday, Wyden revealed his efforts to get Clapper to tell him about the program and called for hearings to discuss the programs. He was also among a group of senators who introduced legislation to force the government to declassify opinions of a secret court that authorizes the surveillance.
"The American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives," Wyden said.
Clapper's spokesman did not comment on Wyden's statement. But in an interview with NBC News earlier this week, Clapper said he "responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, 'No,'" because the program was classified.
The Senate Intelligence Committee will be briefed on the programs again Thursday.
Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members have been routinely briefed about the spy programs, officials said, and Capitol Hill has at least twice renewed laws approving them. But the disclosure of their sheer scope stunned some lawmakers, shocked foreign allies from nations with strict privacy protections and emboldened civil liberties advocates who long have accused the government of being too invasive in the name of national security.
On the heels of new polls showing a majority of Americans support some aspects of the spy programs, lawmakers defended the daily surveillance of billions of phone and Internet records that they said have helped make the U.S. safer in the years after the 9/11 attacks. A poll by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center conducted over the weekend found Americans generally prioritize the government's need to investigate terrorist threats over the need to protect personal privacy.
But a CBS News poll conducted June 9-10 showed that while most approve of government collection of phone records of Americans suspected of terrorist activity and Internet activities of foreigners, a majority disapproved of federal agencies collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans. Thirty percent agreed with the government's assessment that the revelation of the programs would hurt the U.S.' ability to prevent future terrorist attacks, while 57 percent said it would have no impact.
Instead, ire focused on Snowden, the CIA employee-turned-NSA contractor who admitted in an online interview that he exposed the programs in an attempt to safeguard American privacy rights from government snooping.
"He's a traitor," Boehner said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk," Boehner said. "It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it's a giant violation of the law."
His comments echoed a growing chorus in Congress condemning Snowden's actions.
"This is treason," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said late Monday.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also chimed in Monday, calling the disclosure "an act of treason," and that Snowden should be prosecuted.
Only one American — fugitive al-Qaida propaganda chief Adam Gadahn — has been charged with treason since the World War II era. A law enforcement official said prosecutors were building a case against Snowden on Tuesday and had not decided what charges would be brought against him.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because there is no final decision on the charges. But it's unlikely that Snowden would be charged with treason, which carries the death penalty as a punishment, and therefore could complicate extradition from foreign countries.
Snowden, who was formally fired Tuesday from his job with government contracting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, was last seen in Hong Kong. In a video interview with The Guardian newspaper, Snowden admitted to revealing the two classified NSA programs. U.S. officials have said Snowden would have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement to handle the classified material, and at the least could be prosecuted for violating it.
Snowden's exact whereabouts were unknown Tuesday.