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Most in Congress direct anger at leaks, not NSA surveillance

As Congress begins probing the release of documents that revealed details of a government surveillance program Monday, most lawmakers are condemning the disclos
U.S. Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor  (REUTERS/Gus Ruelas)
U.S. Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

As Congress begins probing the release of documents that revealed details of a government surveillance program Monday, most lawmakers are condemning the disclosures as a threat to national security. But some in both parties are instead portraying the program as an example of dangerous government overreach.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday morning that a “very serious” congressional probe of the leak would start today, when Obama administration officials will brief lawmakers on how the information became public. Cantor, a Virginia Republican, added that a broader briefing on the National Security Agency (NSA) program would occur Tuesday.

The U.S. Justice Department confirmed Sunday it had opened a criminal probe into the disclosures. Edward Snowden, a contractor working with the NSA, revealed himself as the source of the leaks, The Guardian reported Sunday.

Related: Watch Guardian's Greenwald defends leaks as vital to democracy

Republicans have been relatively united in denouncing the leak.

“If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date,” Rep. Peter King, who chairs the subcommittee on Counterterrorism & Intelligence, said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday morning on ABC, before Snowden had revealed his identity, that the disclosure had released “just enough information to literally be dangerous.”

Rogers also slammed Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter and civil-liberties advocate who published the information.

“I know your reporter that you interviewed, Greenwald, says that he’s got it all and now is an expert on the program," Rogers said. "He doesn’t have a clue how this thing works.”

Not all in Congress praise NSA program

Democrats have been more split on the issue. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on the same ABC broadcast that the NSA program had helped apprehend potential terrorists in at least two cases: the 2008 siege of a Mumbai hotel and a 2009 plan to bomb the New York City subway. Feinstein has described the program as crucial to national security.

But a group of Democratic senators, including Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Mark Udall of Colorado, has been working since long before last week’s revelations to raise concern about what they see as the threat to civil liberties posed by the national security state.

"I expect the government to protect my privacy, and it feels like that isn't what's been happening," Udall said on CNN Sunday. "I wish the administration had been more transparent.”

Udall called for a "reopening" of the Patriot Act, the controversial law under which the government acted.

Sen. Rand Paul is among the few GOP lawmakers to take a similar stance. In comments last week, Paul, who has described himself as a libertarian, called the initiative "an astounding assault on the Constitution."

“I'm going to be seeing if I can challenge this at the Supreme Court level,” Paul added on Fox News Sunday. “I’m going to be asking all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies: Ask your customers to join me in a class action lawsuit. If we get 10 million Americans saying we don’t want our phone records looked at then maybe someone will wake up and something will change in Washington."