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Congress intelligence chiefs cheer Obama for standing firm on snooping

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By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News

The heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees applauded President Barack Obama's defense of the National Security Agency in his speech Friday proposing reforms to the spy agency.

"The most important victory was the president standing up and saying, ‘Hey, the program did not have abuses. This wasn't sinister. It wasn't a rogue agency. It was legal and proper,'" House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers said.

Appearing with Rogers on NBC's Meet the Press, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen Dianne Feinstein said that Obama made it clear in his speech Friday that "he wanted to maintain the capability" of the NSA's surveillance programs.

She said it will be difficult for Attorney General Eric Holder to accomplish the task Obama has assigned to him: to find a way that "metadata" on telephone calls might be stored by private-sector companies or some third party, rather than by the NSA. But she said all but two or three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee would agree with Obama on wanting to continue the data collection.

Feinstein said the critics of the NSA's surveillance programs underestimate how many people around the world see the United States as their enemy. "A lot of the privacy people perhaps don't understand that we still occupy the role of the Great Satan. New bombs are being devised. New terrorists are emerging, new groups, actually, a new level of viciousness," the California Democrat said. "We need to be prepared. I think we need to do it in a way that respects people's privacy rights."

Feinstein also contended that U.S. companies collect more data on Americans that the NSA does. "When you look at what companies collect, the government does not seem to be a major offender at all," she said.

Rogers rejected that argument made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that in effect he and Feinstein had forced Snowden to tell the world about the NSA surveillance because as intelligence committee chairmen they had failed to monitor and control the agency.

"I couldn't disagree more," Rogers said. "That's like having the janitor at a bank who figured out how to steal some money deciding matters of high finance. This was a thief, who we believe had some help, who stole information the vast majority, had nothing to do with privacy. Our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines have been incredibly harmed by the data that he has taken with him and we believe now is in the hands of nation states."

The Michigan Republican added, "We're going to have to rebuild whole aspects of operations from our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines that will cost billions and billions of dollars because the information he stole and gave, which we believe is now in the hands of nation states, who are doing something with it. There's no honor in that."

"He was stealing information that had to do with how we operate overseas to collect information to keep Americans safe…. And some of the things he did were beyond his technical capabilities" -- a fact which Rogers said "raises more questions. How he arranged travel before he left. How he was ready to go, he had a go bag, if you will."

Rogers added that he believes "there's a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB (Russian security service) agent in Moscow. I don't think that's a coincidence."

Also appearing Meet the Press was a dissenter, Alexis Ohanian, an Internet investor and co-founder of the web site Reddit, who contended that "it is absolutely possible for the NSA to do their job without the bulk collection of America's phone records."

He said the consulting firm Forrester estimated recently that about $180 billion in revenue will be lost to U.S. firms "because countries and citizens around the world no longer want to do business with American companies, because they no longer trust that their private data is safe…. There's a real business cost on top of the civil liberties cost" of the NSA data collection.

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