WASHINGTON -- The Senate intelligence committee chairman on Thursday vowed an effort to limit the access of government contract workers, such as Edward Snowden, to highly classified information.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made the promise after senators received a closed-door briefing about the National Security Agency’s massive domestic telephone surveillance programs, which Snowden divulged to the media.
Based on information supplied by Snowden, a British newspaper reported that one program involves cellphone records. The Guardian newspaper, along with The Washington Post, also reported that another program permits the government access to the online activity of users at nine Internet companies
“We will consider changes,” Feinstein told McClatchy after being briefed by Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and five others. “We will certainly have legislation which will limit or prevent contractors from handling highly classified data. We will do some other things.”
Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton fired Snowden, a 29-year-old computer technician from Maryland, after he admitted leaking information about the surveillance programs.
Snowden had been staying at a Hong Kong hotel. But he checked out Monday and his whereabouts are unknown.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that Snowden “is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.”
“These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety,” Mueller told the committee. “We’re taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures.”
Not all lawmakers agreed with Mueller’s assessment or embraced Feinstein’s call for security restrictions placed on government contractors.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, complained about a growing intelligence bureaucracy and a massive increase since Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the amount of documents marked classified.
“We don’t have a good whistleblower law . . . that’s what we need,” Harkin told a roundtable of African-American journalists Thursday. “I don’t know about this Snowden. My God, everybody’s rushing to judgment . . . stringing him up, hang him first, we’ll have the trial later.
“I don’t know what he did, but when I hear intelligence agencies coming out with these huge pronouncements, I say ‘Wait a second . . . quite frankly, they’re covering their you-know-what.’”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, defended the surveillance efforts Thursday and expressed dismay that President Barack Obama wasn’t doing the same on a regular basis.
“For those of us who have been briefed on these programs, who are aware of these programs, we’re aware how much safety they brought us,” Boehner told reporters. “And we’re also aware of many examples where they’ve helped eliminate terrorist threats.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., hoped that some information about the program will be declassified in the next week or so.
“I’ll tell you this as strongly as I can – the National Security Agency is not reading Americans’ email,” he said. “They’re not collecting Americans’ email by either of these programs. I’ve heard it repeated in news outlets. That is absolutely incorrect.”
Senators were reluctant to talk after the secret briefing, which lasted about an hour. But some lawmakers said they remained convinced that the surveillance program was worthwhile.
“That Americans private information, telephone calls and emails are being rummaged through by the government. That’s not true,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Some skeptics remained eager for more information but were pleased to learn more.
“I can’t say I came out with a master’s degree understanding of it, but it was certainly a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., after the briefing.