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Dick Cheney: Edward Snowden a 'traitor' who likely spied for China (+video)

Officials and lawmakers are scrambling to explain the National Security Agency's massive surveillance program leaked by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden. Many of them weighed in on the Sunday TV news shows.

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The officials offered more detail on how the phone records program helped the NSA stop a 2009 al-Qaeda plot to blow up New York City subways, the AP reported. They say the program helped them track a co-conspirator of al-Qaeda operative Najibullah Zazi – though it's not clear why the FBI needed the NSA to investigate Zazi's phone records because the FBI would have had the authority to gather records of Zazi's phone calls after identifying him as a suspect, rather than relying on the sweeping collection program.

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In any case, according to these officials, last year, fewer than 300 phone numbers were checked against the database of millions of US phone records gathered daily by the NSA in one of the programs, the intelligence officials said in arguing that the programs are far less sweeping than their detractors allege.

Rep. Mike Rogers, (R) Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, insists that the NSA’s surveillance programs are "legal" and "comport with the Constitution." On CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, he described some of how it works.

"We take the business records by a court order, and it's just phone numbers – no names, no addresses – put it in a lock box," Rep. Rogers said. "And if they get a foreign terrorist overseas that's dialing in to the United Sates, they take that phone number…. They plug it into this big pile, if you will, of just phone numbers – it's like a phonebook without any names and any addresses with it – to see if there's a connection, a foreign terrorist connection to the United States.

"When a number comes out of that lock box," Rogers said, "it's just a phone number – no names, no addresses. If they think that's relevant to their counterterrorism investigation, they give that to the FBI. Then the FBI has to go out and meet all the legal standards to even get whose phone number that is."

Such assurances are unlikely to satisfy critics of NSA spying, and not just because public information about the program is so limited.

“I don’t think collecting millions and millions of Americans’ phone calls is making us any safer,” Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado said on Meet the Press. “I think ultimately it is perhaps a violation of the Fourth Amendment” prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.

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