NSA director to get a public grilling in the Senate

General Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on September 23, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

As pressure mounts for the intelligence community to curb its surveillance activities or at least make them more transparent, a key National Security Agency official will testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, National Security Agency director and head of U.S. Cyber Command, will testify before the full committee in a previously-scheduled session, marking the first time an NSA official will answer to Congress in public since news broke that the agency is collecting all of Verizon's U.S. phone records, as well as internet content from non-U.S. internet users abroad.

In addition to Alexander, others testifying include Rand Beers, acting deputy Homeland Security Secretary; Patrick Gallagher, acting deputy Commerce Secretary and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the FBI's criminal, cyber, response, and services branch.

Intelligence officials have been holding closed-door briefings with members of Congress this week, getting them up to speed on the NSA's sweeping surveillance methods. After a Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on Wednesday, vice chairman of the committee Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., called Alexander "very straightforward," adding he "always let's us know what's happening."

While intelligence officials and the Obama administration insist Congress has been fully briefed on the NSA's activities, some members of Congress have disputed that. When Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, Committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said, "This 'fully briefed' is something that drives us up the wall. 'Fully briefed' doesn't mean we know what's going on."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an advocate for more transparency, has specifically called out Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for telling Congress in March that the NSA does not collect data on Americans. The White House on Tuesday defended Clapper, even though Clapper himself has said he gave Congress "the most truthful, or least untruthful" response he could.

The revelations about the NSA programs has renewed challenges against the laws used to justify the programs, namely the Patriot Act and the 2008 FISA Amendments Act. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging the NSA's collection of Verizon records, calling it a violation of the organization's First and Fourth Amendment rights. Furthermore, the ACLU argues that the "business records" section of the Patriot Act doesn't give the agency the statutory authority for such sweeping surveillance.

The Supreme Court recently struck down a challenge to government surveillance programs, arguing in in Clapper v. Amnesty International USA that the plaintiffs had no standing in the case (in other words, the plaintiffs had no proof that they were either the targets of surveillance or would be in the future).

The ACLU in its release Thursday made clear that this would not be a problem in this new lawsuit: "As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society's most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone--a lot--to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a [Verizon] customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work."