Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the committee, questioned the usefulness of the NSA's program that collects phone records in bulk — revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden — in preventing terrorist attacks.
"If this program is not effective, it has to end," Leahy said. He added that a list of classified details on the program's uses "does not reflect dozens or even several terrorist plots that Section 215 helped thwart or prevent, let alone 54 as some have suggested."
Deputy Attorney General James Cole and the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Robert Litt, faced the Senate committee along with National Security Agency Deputy Director John Inglis and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce.
When pressed on how many terrorist plots the NSA's program had helped thwart, Inglis said, "That’s a very difficult question to answer."
The hearing happened as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declassified documents on the NSA's phone data collection program Wednesday. The released documentsshow the Obama administration's legal backing for the program and provide additional details.
Meanwhile, the Guardian, which was instrumental in publishing previous details from Snowden about the NSA's surveillance programs, published more information about a program called XKeyscore Wednesday.
"A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden."
At the Senate hearing, Inglis said no one had been fired over Snowden procuring large amounts of classified data.
"No one has offered to resign. Everyone is working hard to understand what happened," Inglis said.
The second portion of the panel saw Senior Judge James Carr testifying. Carr once served as a judge in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on how the court could better serve the public's interest.