A former NSA contractor released secret documents detailing a project called PRISM that detailed the scope and depth of electronic surveillance in the U.S. General Keith Alexander defended the program Wednesday, saying that collecting Americans' phone records and monitoring their Internet activity has made the nation safer.
Alexander did not give details on the terror plots he said had been disrupted.
Alexander said the public needs to know how the programs operate amid growing concerns that government efforts to secure the nation are encroaching on Americans' privacy and civil liberties.
"I do think it's important that we get this right and I want the American people to know that we're trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country," Alexander told a Senate panel.
Alexander said he will provide additional information to the Senate Intelligence Committee in closed session on Thursday and hopes to have as many details as possible within a week. He said he wants the information to be checked first by other agencies to ensure that the details are correct.
But he also warned that disclosures about the secret programs have eroded agency capabilities and, as a result, U.S. allies and Americans won't be as safe as they were two weeks ago.
"Some of these are still going to be classified and should be, because if we tell the terrorists every way that we're going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die," he said, adding that he would rather be criticized by people who think he's hiding something "than jeopardize the security of this country."
He was questioned at length by senators seeking information on exactly how much data the NSA collects and the legal backing for the activities.
Half a world away, Edward Snowden, the former contractor who fled to Hong Kong and leaked the documents, said he's not there to hide from justice and has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
"I am neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Snowden told the South China Morning Post about his disclosures of top-secret surveillance programs that have rocked Washington.
Snowden resurfaced in the Chinese newspaper after dropping out of sight since Sunday. Snowden said he wanted to fight the U.S. government in Hong Kong's courts and would stay unless "asked to leave." Hong Kong is a Chinese autonomous region that maintains a Western-style legal system and freedom of speech.
U.S. law enforcement officials have said they are building a case against Snowden but have yet to bring charges. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States; there are exceptions in cases of political persecution or where there are concerns over cruel or humiliating treatment.
"I have had many opportunities to flee (Hong Kong), but I would rather stay and fight the US government in the courts, because I have faith in (Hong Kong's) rule of law," said Snowden.
While many rank-and-file members of Congress have expressed anger and bewilderment, there is apparently very little appetite among key leaders and intelligence committee chiefs to pursue any action. Most have expressed support for the programs as invaluable counterterror tools and some have labeled Snowden a traitor.
Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members have been routinely briefed about the spy programs, officials said, and Congress has at least twice renewed laws approving them. But the disclosure of their sheer scope stunned some lawmakers, shocked foreign allies from nations with strict privacy protections and emboldened civil liberties advocates who long have accused the government of being too invasive in the name of national security.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.