WASHINGTON -- One of the staunchest critics of government surveillance programs said Tuesday that the national intelligence director did not give him a straight answer in March when he asked whether the National Security Agency collects any data on millions of Americans.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called for hearings to discuss two recently revealed NSA programs that collect billions of telephone numbers and Internet usage daily. He was also among a group of senators who introduced legislation Tuesday to force the government to declassify opinions of a secret court that authorizes the surveillance.
But other key members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the programs were valuable tools in counterterror, and that the former NSA contractor who leaked them was a traitor. President Barack Obama has vigorously defended the program, saying Americans must balance privacy and security to protect the nation from terrorists.
Mr. Wyden, however, complained that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, during a Senate Intelligence hearing in March about threats the United States faces from around the world, was less than forthcoming. "The American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives," he said in a statement.
Mr. Wyden said he wanted to know the scope of the top-secret surveillance programs, and privately asked NSA Director Keith Alexander for clarity. When he did not get a satisfactory answer, Mr. Wyden said he alerted Mr. Clapper's office a day early that he would ask the same question at the public hearing.
"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Mr. Wyden asked Mr. Clapper at the March 12 hearing.
"No, sir," Mr. Clapper replied.
"It does not?" the lawmaker pressed.
The intelligence chief softened his answer. "Not wittingly," he said. "There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect -- but not wittingly."
A Clapper spokesman did not have an immediate response Tuesday, but the intelligence director told NBC that he believed that Mr. Wyden's question was "not answerable, necessarily, by a simple yes or no."
Officials generally do not discuss classified information in public hearings -- reserving discussion on top-secret programs for closed sessions, where they will not be revealed to adversaries. "So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least most untruthful, manner, by saying, 'No,' " Mr. Clapper said.
The programs that do sweep up such data were revealed last week by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, and Mr. Clapper has since taken the unusual step of declassifying some of the previously top-secret details to help the administration mount a public defense of the surveillance as a necessary step to protect Americans.
One of the NSA programs gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records to search for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad. The other allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet firms and gather all communications to detect suspicious behavior starting overseas.
A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that Americans generally prioritize the government's need to investigate terror threats over the need to protect personal privacy, and most (56 percent) considered the NSA collection of Americans' phone call records an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism. Respondents were more closely divided on whether the government should be able to monitor email and other online activities to prevent future terror attacks, with 52 percent opposed. The poll was conducted June 6-9, as many details of the NSA data collection were still being revealed.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive security issue, said Monday there were no plans to scrap the programs. Despite backlash from overseas allies and U.S. privacy advocates, the programs continue to receive widespread, if cautious, support within Congress as an indispensable tool for protecting Americans from terrorists.
The Justice Department is weighing whether to charge the American man who claims to have given documents about the classified programs to journalists. The whereabouts of Edward Snowden, 29, were not immediately known. He was last in Hong Kong, where he hopes to avoid being extradited to the United States for prosecution. The NSA contractor for whom he worked, Booz Allen Hamilton, announced Tuesday that they had fired Mr. Snowden after less than three months on the job.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament planned Tuesday to debate the spy programs and whether they have violated local privacy protections. EU officials in Brussels pledged to seek answers later this week from U.S. diplomats at a trans-Atlantic ministerial meeting in Dublin.
Mr. Clapper has ordered an internal review to assess how much damage the disclosures created. Intelligence experts say terrorist suspects and others seeking to attack the United States all but certainly will find alternate ways to communicate, instead of relying on systems that now are widely known to be under surveillance.