House has tough questions about secret surveillance programs

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Story highlights

  • Some questions answered, others unresolved
  • Entire House briefed on leaks of classified surveillance information
  • It's unclear where Edward Snowden, the man who outed himself as leaker, may be
  • Ex-official: U.S. may move quickly to bring charges against Snowden, request extradition

House members from both political parties Tuesday raised concerns and tough questions for administration officials who briefed the entire chamber on the government's recently revealed top secret surveillance programs.

While Peter King, a Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee, complimented the briefing team, some of his colleagues said some questions remain unanswered.

"I was very impressed by it," said King, of New York. "I thought they laid out all the protections (which) are there, and I support what they are doing."

But Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said the briefing "raises plenty of more questions that all members I'm sure are going to be asking."

Senior officials from the Justice Department, FBI, National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence attended the closed meeting for all House members, not just those who are in leadership posts or on the Intelligence Committee.

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The briefing came as the FBI investigates the leak of information about the NSA's PRISM program. The secret set of tools is used to collect data about overseas Internet communications. The NSA and FBI have obtained massive numbers of U.S. phone logs through a court order.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contract computer employee, went public Sunday in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian. He said he had provided classified documents about U.S. surveillance of telephone and Internet traffic to journalists out of concern about what he viewed as excessive intrusions by the NSA's programs.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told reporters the briefing was "thoughtful" and not steeped in politics.

Representatives from both parties raised "legitimate" concerns about the programs, said new Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina.

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Before the briefing, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra said members knew with the Patriot Act that "we were enabling the federal government to be far more invasive in the lives of people around the world than ever before."

Becerra voted against the Patriot Act and said with the details on these programs coming out, there needs to be greater congressional oversight and a review of laws pertaining to surveillance.

The government is collecting a billion pieces of data a day, according to Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Snowden continued.

Snowden, as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the U.S. electronic intelligence agency, had been working at an NSA facility in Hawaii and had also worked for the CIA in the past. Snowden was last heard from during interviews he conducted from a hotel room in Hong Kong, but his whereabouts are unclear at the moment. He no longer works for the contractor.

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A federal law enforcement official said the FBI's investigation of the NSA leaks would include searching computers used by Snowden at his home as well as moving to interview his girlfriend, relatives, friends and co-workers. It was not clear how long the investigation would take and what charges might be considered.

Former FBI official Don Borelli told CNN he thinks prosecutors will move quickly to bring charges against Snowden and request his extradition to the United States before he can try to move to another country, possibly to seek political asylum.

Borelli also said the United States wouldn't want to see Chinese officials have a chance to find out all that Snowden may know. "This guy could be a gold mine for the Chinese," Borelli said. "I mean obviously they've got an NSA, a CIA, a contractor with the ability to get his hands on lots and lots of classified information . ... Who knows what other programs he was read in to?"

Borelli said the quickest option is to charge Snowden with disclosure of classified information to someone unauthorized to receive it, an Espionage Act offense that carries up to 10 years in prison.

He said officials will probably steer clear, at least for now, of mentioning possible treason charges that could carry the death penalty. "Some countries will not extradite people if they potentially face the death penalty," said Borelli, now an executive with the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.

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Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director and CNN contributor, said one option might be to file charges against Snowden and then try to get Hong Kong authorities to deport him to the United States.

"The State Department can immediately revoke his U.S. passport and then send a certified copy of revocation to the authorities in Hong Kong, basically notifying them this individual is no longer traveling on a valid U.S. passport and is essentially illegally in your territory," Fuentes said.

A key question is whether U.S. officials know Snowden's whereabouts.

"I would be very certain that they know where he is," Borelli said.

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