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FBI Chief Defends Surveillance Programs, Condemns NSA Leaker

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The head of the FBI said on Thursday that leaks by a National Security Agency contractor about secret surveillance programs "have caused significant harm to our nation and our safety."

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller told lawmakers that a criminal investigation of Edward Snowden is underway, although he wouldn't get into specifics about the probe.

Snowden is believed to be in Hong Kong.  U.S. intelligence officials worry that he might try to ask China for political asylum, making extradition extremely difficult.

Mueller emphasized the importance to national security of the surveillance programs, which include gathering records about phone calls made in the U.S. and information on foreign suspects collected from major Internet companies.

The FBI chief said the programs were legal and under strict oversight by Congress and a court, adding that they did not violate “the Constitution and U.S. laws.”

As for civil rights concerns that the programs go far and beyond their intent in stopping terrorist attacks, Mueller stressed, "We recognize that the American public expects the FBI and our intelligence community partners to protect privacy interests, even as we must conduct our national security mission."

Ultimately, though, Mueller told the House panel that enemies of the nation are determined to strike again, saying, "As exhibited by many of our arrests over the past year, we face a continuing threat from homegrown violent extremists."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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