Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., questioned the legality of journalists reporting on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden during a House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, reflecting tensions in the House on surveillance reform.
“If I am a newspaper reporter for, fill in the blank and I sell stolen material, is that legal because I am a newspaper reporter?” the House committee chairman asked. “If I am hocking stolen classified material that I am not legally in the possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?”
In response to those questions FBI Director James Comey held back on judgment and said his agency is still investigating the theft and distribution of the classified material taken by Snowden.
[READ: Democrats Introduce Net Neutrality Reauthorization Bill]
"I think that’s a harder question because it involves a newsgathering function," Comey said. "[It] could have First Amendment implications. It’s something that probably would be better answered by the Department of Justice."
Snowden has said to media outlets that he advised reporters he has worked with to be careful of national security risks when publishing information, and that he has not given any documents to Chinese or Russian intelligence. The former contractor went to China after leaving the U.S. and is now living in Russia. Snowden also told The Washington Post in December that his leaks have already accomplished his goal of transparency about the surveillance program.
“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” Snowden said to the Post.
Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., ranking member of the committee, said the intelligence community needs to assuage public concerns about surveillance gathering, but repeated his stance that the reports about the NSA are misinforming people by failing to mention the agency’s privacy process.
“We don’t want to give up sources and methods but we have to be more forthcoming in what the intelligence community is doing to protect us,” Ruppersberger said.[ALSO: NSA Leaks May Slow Cybersecurity Detente]
The debate on reforming surveillance also took place in a different congressional hearing on Tuesday, when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the NSA's "bulk metadata program is in need of significant reform in order to restore the trust of the American people and to protect Americans’ civil liberties."
"Any reforms Congress enacts must ensure our nation’s intelligence collection programs effectively protect our national security and include real protections for Americans’ civil liberties, robust oversight, and additional transparency," Goodlatte said during the hearing.The USA Freedom Act introduced by House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would end the bulk metadata program. Rogers and Ruppersberger support the existence of the metadata program as important to national security.
[MORE: Microsoft May Promote Insider to CEO Next Week] Goodlatte said during the hearing that the Obama administration should weigh in on the bill so Congress could have a more informed debate about its national security aspects. President Barack Obama in January tasked Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence leaders to devise a plan before March 28 that would end the government's in-house bulk storage of American phone records while
preserving its ability to search information for security purposes.
Among the options Holder and the NSA will consider include requiring technology companies to store data for intelligence leaders to access, which Goodlatte said may lead to more concerns about privacy than it would solve.
companies are experiencing a lack of customer trust and a loss of international
business as a result of the Snowden leaks based upon the fear that information
about their customers is readily and routinely turned over to the American
government," Goodlatte said. "I suspect requiring these companies to
now house the data specifically so the government can access it will only
reinforce those fears."