WASHINGTON — When Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, kicked off his weekly conference call with reporters Thursday, he was hoping to discuss his education legislation, which had just passed out of committee.
But almost every question from reporters focused on the recent revelations about the National Security Agency's program to collect data on Americans' phone records.
It was a story that threatened to consume all the other news in sight this week.
Harkin urged President Barack Obama to get a handle on the situation so Washington can focus on pressing matters, such as the economy and overhauling the federal tax code.
But he also expressed deep concern about the data collection and said it warrants in-depth hearings.
“I've seen our intelligence agencies manipulate and twist information to their own ends,” he said. “So I'm one that's just not going to say 'Well, if the head of the NSA says something then I'll believe it.' ”
Intelligence agency officials have suggested the data collection has helped stop attacks on Americans, but Harkin was skeptical.
“Of course, they're going to say that, because they're covering ... their rear ends,” he said.
Harkin also took issue with the claims by proponents of the data collection that members of Congress have been kept in the loop through briefings.
“I've been to those briefings, and it's all on the surface. … These briefings don't amount to a hill of beans,” he said.
Harkin said he's not sure what should be done with NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“People seemed to have rushed to judgment — hang him high and then we'll have the trial,” Harkin said. “I don't know. I don't know.”
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., agreed with Harkin on the intelligence agencies' briefing of Congress. He said they send briefing materials to the top members of certain committees, but other members have no notice that those materials are available to them. He said he's very uncomfortable with the data mining.
“They've stretched its meaning beyond what they ever imagined,” Terry said.
He predicted that changes will be made.
“There's going to be a lot of classified meetings with members of Congress to maybe roll back some of this program,” Terry said, “because it appears to me the vast majority of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are very upset with this collection and use of the data.”
As for Snowden, he was resolute in what should be done.
“He is definitely not a whistleblower, and he should be prosecuted,” Terry said. “That doesn't mean what the NSA is doing is right, (but) I have no sympathy for Snowden.”