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Intelligence officials brief Congress on spy programs

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 sweeping 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 that 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.

But one of the Senate's staunchest critics of the surveillance programs, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., 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.

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.

 


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