Senators, Intelligence Officials Clash at Hearing

Senators, Intelligence Officials Clash at Hearing
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Top U.S. intelligence officials jousted with lawmakers and repeatedly berated NSA leaker Edward Snowden during the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual worldwide threat briefing Wednesday morning.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, reading from a prepared statement, said that after 50 years in intelligence gathering, he had never “experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” He blasted Snowden, asserting that “the nation is less safe and its people less secure” because of the leaked information.

“Snowden claims that he has won and that his mission is accomplished,” Clapper continued. “If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed.”

However, several senators aimed their ire at Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan.

Ron Wyden of Oregon aggressively questioned Clapper and asserted that the public’s trust in the intelligence community had been “seriously undermined by senior officials’ reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements.” (At last year’s briefing, Clapper famously denied that the NSA conducted bulk data collection, a statement later proven false by the Snowden leaks.)

Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told Brennan he is disappointed with how the CIA, under Brennan’s leadership, “has chosen to engage and interact with this committee, especially as it relates to the committee’s study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.” He accused the agency of making inaccurate public statements “meant to intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight.”

Brennan also clashed with Colorado’s Mark Udall. Their back-and-forth prompted the CIA chief to say that he was “prepared to deal with the committee” in a private setting. Throughout the hearing, both Clapper and Brennan declined to speak publicly about several issues related to interrogation techniques and surveillance.

Despite several tense moments -- questioning at the hearing was significantly more aggressive than in past years -- virtually all committee members praised and defended the nation’s broader intelligence apparatuses.

“This has been an especially difficult year for the men and women in the intelligence community,” said committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, adding that the NSA leaks “compromised our national security and complicated our foreign partnerships.”

Jay Rockefeller -- a previous chairman of both the Commerce and Intelligence committees -- delivered a statement opposing President Obama’s plan to shift telephone metadata storage to a private entity.

“The collection and querying of this metadata is not a private sector responsibility,” Rockefeller said in a statement, forgoing questions. He added that telecommunications companies “do not want to become the government’s guardians of vast amounts of intelligence data.” Rockefeller also suggested that these companies’ storage systems are less secure than government databases. Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein implicitly endorsed Rockefeller’s position, saying the West Virginia Democrat “knew what he was talking about.”

Clapper -- responding to a question from Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski about whether the Supreme Court should issue an expedited ruling on the constitutionality of NSA domestic surveillance -- indicated that while he “can’t speak for the administration,” he would discuss the issue with Attorney General Eric Holder. “I could not agree with you more for the need for clarity on these issues for the men and women in the intelligence community.”

“We need to determine the constitutionality, because if it's not constitutional, that’s it,” Mikulski emphasized.

Feinstein also asked FBI Director James Comey about the threat of terrorism at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Comey said that the FBI will continue to work with Russian authorities, but noted that the relationship between the two countries’ officials “can always improve.”

Code Pink protesters held up signs reading “Stop Killing, Stop Lying” and demanded Clapper’s resignation prior to the start of the proceedings.

The hearing was timed with the release of an annual assessment of the top threats that the United States faces. American intelligence agencies rated cybersecurity as the greatest threat to national security. Coming in second was the danger posed by foreign spies and leaks, which was No. 4 on last year’s list. Terrorism ranked as the third biggest problem. 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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