WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress on Tuesday expressed growing doubts about the way the country's top-secret surveillance programs are managed, even as the top legislators from each party voiced confidence in the programs and showed little interest in a public discussion of the issue.
Emerging from an early evening closed-door briefing with officials from the National Security Agency, the Justice Department and the FBI, some members of the House of Representatives said they had more questions than answers about the surveillance programs that sweep up records from phone and Internet accounts belonging to millions of Americans.
"I think what really came out of it is that we need, as Congress, is to move forward and debate the issue," said Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House
intelligence committee. "It's really a debate on how far we go with public safety, and protecting us from terrorist attacks, versus how far we go on the other side and what programs we use to deal with that issue. This is what we do in Congress."
The House briefing came hours after eight U.S. senators -- six Democrats and two Republicans -- introduced legislation that would require the U.S. attorney general to make public secret decisions of the court that grants permission for collection of such records. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has rejected only 11 such applications among the more than 30,000 cases it's considered since it was founded in 1979.
"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a statement. "There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can't have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans' communications should be permitted without ending secret law."
Joining him in his effort were Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Al Franken, D-Minn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
But they were met with a torrent of opposition as Senate leaders, as well as much of the rank and file, vigorously defended the programs in a sign of how difficult it would be in Congress to change the law that governs such surveillance.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., found themselves on the same side of an issue in defending two programs the details of which were revealed last week by Britain's The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.