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June 13th, 2013
06:46 PM ET

Gingrich: Surveillance system more powerful, gathering more data than admitted

Members of Congress finally got briefed about the super-secret federal phone and e-mail surveillance programs that President Barack Obama contends they’ve known about for years.

The head of the National Security Agency, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, did the talking in two closed-door meetings with members of the House and Senate intelligence committees on Thursday about domestic spying programs that collect millions of phone records a day and can access e-mails.

"This is not a program where we are out freewheeling it. It is a well overseen and a very focused program. What we owe you the American people is now how good is that with some statistics. And I think when the American people hear that they are going to stop and say, ‘wait, the information we are getting is incorrect,'" Alexander told reporters after one of the briefings Thursday.

FBI director Robert Mueller also defended the spy programs before the House Judiciary Committee.

He said they are legal and known to Congress. Mueller evoked 9/11, claiming  these types of programs might have been able to catch phone calls between an al Qaeda safe house and one of the hijackers who was lying low in San Diego.

"If we had the telephone number in Yemen, we would've matched it up to that telephone number in San Diego," said Mueller. "The simple fact of their detention could have derailed the plan. In any case, the opportunity was not there. If we had had this program, the opportunity would have been there."

Watch CNN "The Lead's" wrap up of Alexander's briefings and Mueller's testimony here.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 2012 Republican presidential candidate recommends a “fire wall” of sorts that says “you not use that in any kind of investigation except terrorism."

Gingrich said he suspects the surveillance programs are more vast than what has so far been revealed.

"I think the current system is much more powerful than they want to admit.  It's gathering much more data than they want to admit," said Gingrich.

The man who sparked all of this, Edward Snowden, is in the wind - with a slew of Tom Clancy-types after him. The admitted leaker of classified information about phone and e-mail snooping to newspapers was last known to be in Hong Kong.

"What Snowden did verges on treason. It is not the right of a single citizen to decide on their own that that they’re going to steal classified documents and I think he should be prosecuted to the full course of the law," Gingrich said.

The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Snowden used a thumb drive to smuggle out the leaked classified documents.

It was supposed to get a lot harder to use portable storage devices at intelligence and military facilities after Army Pvt. Bradley Manning allegedly leaked a trove of classified information to WikiLeaks.

Snowden has said it would not be difficult for someone like him to access and wiretap e-mails or phone calls. There has been a lot of push back from officials on Snowden's assertion.

"The modern world has a level of cyber-combat every day," said Gingrich. "Whether the American government does it or not, it's being done. I think the difference is the sheer power of the government."

Gingrich pointed to recent problems at the Internal Revenue Service as an example of how government abuse of power can "totally screw up somebody's life."

The IRS has admitted to targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012.

Gingrich said the gathering of information could have much more dire consequences.

"You have a U.S. attorney who gets access to this kind of information, or you get deliberately malicious leaks - you can ruin people's lives," said Gingrich.

"We should have a national debate. I think the president has an obligation as commander-in-chief to lead that information debate. I personally believe we ought to have much greater division between counterterrorism and regular crime," said Gingrich.

"We need to recognize that things I'm willing to have the government do to stop a nuclear weapon from going off in Boston, is not something I’m willing to have the government do in terms of going after ordinary citizens," said Gingrich.

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