The chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees on Sunday defended a recently disclosed government surveillance program as the whistleblower behind the bombshell leak about the program willingly revealed himself to the public and spoke proudly of his actions.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, lamented criticism and said the “inflammatory nature of the comments” from people he says are not familiar with National Security Agency surveillance programs do not fit with what the programs do. Such opposition has prompted one of his Republican colleagues, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, to say he was considering a class-action lawsuit over the issue.
“The National Security Agency does not listen to Americans’ phone calls, and it is not reading Americans’ emails,” Mr. Rogers said. “None of these programs allow that.”
Mr. Rogers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, specified two declassified cases in which the agency’s data-collecting techniques have been used to thwart or punish terrorist attacks — an unsuccessful 2009 plot to bomb New York City’s subways and the case against an American who helped scout targets for a 2008 terrorist rampage in Mumbai.
Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Rogers said the source who released the information regarding the operation, known as Prism, should be prosecuted. Reuters reported Saturday that the NSA has formally requested that the Department of Justice launch an investigation into the agency’s leaks.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said late Sunday that the government “is in the initial stages of an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access,” but declined to comment further “in order to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
Leaker comes forth
Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA who has worked at the NSA for a variety of companies, revealed himself as the whistleblower to The Guardian newspaper in an article published Sunday afternoon.
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” the 29-year-old employee for Booz Allen Hamilton told the left-leaning British paper. “I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.
“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” he said in an interview from Hong Kong. He said he is holed up in a hotel not far from a U.S. consulate.
Mr. Snowden said he is in Hong Kong because the former British colony, over which China now exercises sovereignty and controls foreign and security policy, has what he called “a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”
However, China has a reputation for attacking U.S. cybersecurity and maintaining tight controls over Internet use by its populace. As the NSA revelations dominated news coverage over the weekend, cybersecurity played a role in President Obama’s Friday-Saturday summit in California with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mr. Obama pushed Mr. Xi for more cooperation on the issue, but officials said there were no major breakthroughs. The Chinese leader even said China was a victim and not a principal cause of cyberhacking.
In a rare move, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper over the weekend distributed to the media information about the recently disclosed surveillance operation, saying he had declassified some details to dispel “myths” in news reports about the government program to monitor citizens’ Internet activities.
Mr. Clapper said the surveillance activities are legal. He also said, as Mr. Obama did Friday, that the government has numerous checks and balances to protect against the invasion of privacy. He said Congress and the courts play roles in ensuring that civil liberties are protected.
A fact sheet released by Mr. Clapper said Prism “is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program” but rather “an internal government computer system” for gathering foreign intelligence under the act.
On Sunday, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence office acknowledged the latest Guardian report on the whistleblower, but referred comment to the Department of Justice.
“The Intelligence Community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures,” spokesman Shawn Turner said. “Any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a frequent critic of the Obama administration, offered somewhat of a defense Sunday by pointing out that none of the administration’s proposals has been rejected by a court system set up through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“Perhaps there has been some overreach,” Mr. McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “but to somehow think that because we are having phone calls recorded as far as their length and who they were talking to, I don’t think that that is necessarily wrong if they want to go further and they have to go to this court.”
But on the other side of an issue that is dividing the Republican Party, Mr. Paul said on “Fox News Sunday” that he was thinking about suing the federal government over the issue.
“That is unconstitutional, it invades our privacy and I’m going to be seeing if I can challenge this at the Supreme Court level,” Mr. Paul said. “I’m going to be asking all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies, ask your customers to join me in a class-action lawsuit. If we get 10 million Americans saying we don’t want our phone records looked at, then somebody will wake up and say things will change in Washington.”
Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, disagreed Sunday with Mr. Obama’s assertion that the right balance between privacy and security has been struck. Mr. Clapper insisted that such surveillance activities are debated fully and authorized by Congress, but Mr. Udall said they have been “in a limited way.”
“Millions of records every day being accumulated makes me uneasy. I think it’s a violation of our privacy. Let’s take a further look at this,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“This isn’t a scandal,” he said, “but this is deeply concerning to me and a lot of Americans and, frankly, a lot of my colleagues in the Senate on both sides of the aisle.”
In addition to the Prism program, The Guardian also reported last week that the NSA is collecting telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret order issued in April by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Mr. Rogers decried the leaking about the programs and said the journalist who first reported both, liberal author Glenn Greenwald, did not understand either the programs or the consequences of leaking about them.
“He doesn’t have a clue how this thing works,” he told ABC’s “This Week.” “Neither did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous.”
Mr. Greenwald said on the same program, in response to the criticism from Mr. Clapper, that such rhetoric is par for the course and that documents he has unearthed show that the NSA has misled Congress.
“Every single time any major media outlet reports on something that the government is hiding, that political officials don’t want people to know … the people in power do exactly the same thing: They attack the media as the messenger and try to discredit the story,” Mr. Greenwald said.
Mrs. Feinstein also detailed the incomplete nature of the disclosures by The Guardian, which focus on a top-secret court document the paper posted in its entirely on its website.
“It should be noted that the document that was released that was under seal, which reauthorized the program for another 90 days, came along with a second document that placed and discussed the strictures on the program. That document was not released,” she said.