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The Snowden affair: Whatever happened to the blame game?

A television screens the image of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow's Sheremetyevo
A television screens the image of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow's Sheremetyevo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Edward Snowden's revelations about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs and his globe-trotting flight from prosecution have created an international furor, but there is one place the outcry has been muted: Capitol Hill.

Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate, who have attacked President Barack Obama's administration over the 2012 Benghazi attacks and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups, have so far largely held their fire over the Snowden case.

Even Obama's toughest critics have not called for heads to roll or set oversight hearings to probe how a 29-year-old IT systems contractor was able to steal highly classified documents from the National Security Agency, take them with him to Hong Kong, leak them to major media outlets and flee to Russia.

The scandal at the IRS involved a favorite target of Republicans, who make tax reduction a major part of their political platform. In the seven weeks since the scandal unfolded, Congress has held multiple hearings and Obama fired the IRS director.

Congress also held dozens of hearings on the September 11 Benghazi attacks, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. The incident has been a focal point for Republicans since presidential nominee Mitt Romney condemned Obama on the night of the attacks.

But the Snowden case is different. Republican lawmakers generally back Obama on national security programs, many implemented under Republican President George W. Bush. And extraditing Snowden involves other world powers - Russia and China - with which the United States has complicated relationships.

"There's a lack of clarity and there's a kind of political delicacy, so that the Republicans aren't sure on this one that they can be as aggressive as they were on some of those other issues that have emerged," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public policy at Princeton University.

Some Republicans have blamed the failure of Beijing and Moscow to turn over Snowden on what they see as Obama's weak foreign policy. Several, including Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch, said it reflected growing U.S. weakness abroad.

But lawmakers have said talk of specific remedies should wait until after a thorough investigation.

"We're going to be looking at a whole bunch of things, everything from contractors to classifications to applications and background checks. This is going to promote a pretty widespread look at how we all do all this, and I think some major changes will probably be implemented," said Republican Dan Coats, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

SMALL REFORMS

Thus far, some small reforms have been suggested.

NSA head Keith Alexander said his agency was considering starting a "two-person control" system in which no one could download secret data without another person there to approve it.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said Congress would consider limiting contractors' access to certain classified information.

Other senators have questioned the use of contractors, including USIS, which screened Snowden for security clearance. The Washington Post reported on Friday that a federal watchdog wants to recommend that the government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) end ties with the company.

A spokesman for USIS said the company has been "fully cooperating" with the government and working closing with OPM, but declined further comment.

Lawmakers have questioned some practices at Booz Allen Hamilton, the NSA contractor that hired Snowden, but they have not called its executives before a hearing or demanded a reassessment of its contracts.

Republicans have been behind a years-long push to cut the government workforce and use more outside contractors. And Democrats, the more likely critics of contracting policies, dismissed criticism of Obama as political posturing.

"Many of those critics who had no problem with the previous administration, I guess they're experts in incompetence. I just think it's piling on," said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said it was too early to say what should be done about Booz Allen, and said he had heard no calls for Alexander or National Intelligence Director James Clapper to step aside.

"I don't have a reduced level of confidence (in them) because of any of these events," Levin said.

Officials at the NSA and Booz Allen were not immediately available to comment on whether there have been any changes to date in the wake of the Snowden reports.

Republicans have been reluctant to criticize the military, especially as many are fighting defense budget cuts. Alexander, the NSA director, also heads the Pentagon's cyber command.

"There has been a real hesitation to be overly critical of the administration on NSA, given a lot of members didn't understand or appreciate what it all meant," said an aide to a Republican senator who serves on the Armed Services Committee.

"Congress is complicit in this. We've authorized the damn thing," the aide said.

A group of 26 senators, led by Democrat Ron Wyden, a leading advocate of privacy rights in Congress, sent a letter to Clapper on Friday, asking that more information about the programs be publicly released.

Leaders in the Republican-led House of Representatives have held just one public hearing since the Snowden news broke.

The House Intelligence Committee called only witnesses who defended the NSA - and bashed Snowden. Republican Representative Mike Rogers, the committee chairman, praised Alexander for his long public service career.

"That's a patriot!" he said of the NSA chief.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Tiffany Wu and Jim Loney)

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