The National Security Agency is getting closer to declassifying information about dozens of would-be terrorist attacks thwarted with the assistance of a telephone-tracking program, senior lawmakers said Thursday.
The declassification will "allow the American public to better understand" the program's scope and use, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday.
The intelligence panel met for more than an hour with Gen. Keith Alexander, who oversees the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command.
Emerging from the meeting, Alexander gave a brief statement, saying that his agency is working with lawmakers to conduct a "damage assessment" of recent revelations regarding how the NSA can obtain phone and Internet records.
Alexander and other senior national security officials are scheduled to give a closed-door briefing to the entire U.S. Senate later Thursday.
Rogers said he and his colleagues pressed Alexander to release more information about thwarted attacks, but that it is taking a while for each incident to be fully vetted.
Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, said that "we’re dealing with perception, and the average American does not understand what we know, and we need to understand that and get out as much public information as we can that will not hurt our national security."
Ultimately, Ruppersberger said Congress will be able to "show the American public that we’re not violating any constitutional rights, number one, and number two, that we still need to protect our country so that we don’t have another Boston problem, so that we don’t have another 9/11 problem."
Rogers and Ruppersberger faced several questions about the motives of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who released information on the agency's activities to The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers. Several reporters asked whether it has been determined whether Snowden is in fact a Chinese spy or seeking to defect to China and then share more sensitive information with the Chinese government.
"We’re going to make sure that there’s a thorough scrub of what his China connections are and there’s a lot of questions there that need to be answered," Rogers said.
Though the investigation isn't complete, Ruppersberger cast doubt on Snowden's potential connections to China: "It just seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for the protection of the Chinese government and giving press conferences to Chinese media."
Both lawmakers sought to discredit Snowden and urged people not to consider him a hero for releasing the information.
"I hope that we don’t decide that our national security interests are going to be determined by a high school dropout who had a whole series of both academic troubles and employment troubles," Roger said. "We’d better ask a lot harder questions about who he is and what his motives were, fully, and what access he had to information, before we draw the conclusion that this guy was doing something positive."
"I think he’s a legend in his own mind," Ruppersberger added.