"I said I wasn't going to yell at you and I'm going to try not to. That's exactly what the American people are worried about," he said. "That's what's infuriating the American people. They're understanding that if you collect that amount of data, people can get access to it in ways that can harm them."
The government says it stores everybody's phone records for five years. Cole explained that because the phone companies don't keep records that long, the NSA had to build its own database.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, asked why the government didn't simply ask the phone companies to keep their data longer. That why, the government could ask for specific information, rather than collecting information on millions of innocent people.
Inglis said it would be challenging, but the government was looking into it.
Near the end of the hearing, Litt struck a compromising tone. He said national security officials had tried to balance privacy and security.
"If the people in Congress decide that we've struck that balance in the wrong place, that's a discussion we need to have," he said.
Obama, too, has said he welcomes the debate over surveillance. But his administration never wanted the debate to be quite so specific.
That was obvious when Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked Litt whether he really believed the government could keep such a vast surveillance program a secret forever.
"Well," Litt replied, "we tried."