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US intelligence chief James Clapper has asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into the leaks about its electronic surveillance programs, NBC News reported Sunday.
"For me, it is literally gut-wrenching to see this happening because of the huge grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities," Clapper said in an excerpt of an interview with the television network.
"For me this is a key tool for preserving protecting the nation's safety and security."
On Saturday, Clapper declassified details about the surveillance as he offered a vigorous defense of the intelligence-gathering, saying the activities were legal and subjected to extensive oversight by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
Bombshell leaks by The Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper this week exposed PRISM, a program to gather data trails left by targeted foreign citizens using the Internet outside the United States.
The newspapers also revealed that the National Security Agency has been scooping up records of the time and duration of phone calls made in the United States through Verizon as part of a data mining operation to anticipate terror plots.
"The NSA has filed a crimes report on this already," Clapper told NBC about the leaks.
He said he understood public concerns about the invasion of privacy and civil liberties, but said that "a lot of what people are seeing and reading in the media is a lot of hyperbole."
The debate over the programs "has a double-edged sword in that our adversaries, whether nation-state adversary or nefarious groups benefit from that same transparency," Clapper added.
"So as we speak, they are going to school and learning how we do this. That's why it can render great damage to our intelligence capabilities."