Obama’s NSA Plans Leave Toughest Questions Up for Debate

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The disclosures by former government contractor Edward Snowden about the use of metadata, such as collection of phone data like numbers dialed and call durations, has led U.S. lawmakers, privacy advocates and some overseas leaders to urge restraining the NSA and revamping its surveillance programs. Close

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Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The disclosures by former government contractor Edward Snowden about the use of metadata, such as collection of phone data like numbers dialed and call durations, has led U.S. lawmakers, privacy advocates and some overseas leaders to urge restraining the NSA and revamping its surveillance programs.

Edward Snowden, the fugitive former contractor who leaked classified National Security Agency documents, “was a thief” who had possible Russian assistance and who has “incredibly harmed” the U.S. military, the House Intelligence Committee chairman said.

“This was a thief, who we believe had some help, who stole information, the vast majority had nothing to do with privacy,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, told the NBC News program “Meet the Press” in remarks scheduled for broadcast today.

“Our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines have been incredibly harmed by the data that he has taken with him and we believe now is in the hands of nation states,” Rogers said in excerpts released by NBC.

Rogers, commenting earlier this month on a classified Defense Department report on the leak by Snowden that revealed NSA spying programs, said the study showed the disclosures may “gravely impact” national security and that much of what he took is related to current military operations.

Rogers has offered the only public characterization of the report, which he said concluded that Snowden, when he was working for the McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., downloaded about 1.7 million intelligence files - - the biggest theft of U.S. secrets ever.

Photographer: Barton Gellman/Getty Images

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden poses for a photo during an interview in an undisclosed location in Moscow in Dec. 2013. Close

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden poses for a photo during an interview in... Read More

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Photographer: Barton Gellman/Getty Images

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden poses for a photo during an interview in an undisclosed location in Moscow in Dec. 2013.

Rogers, in the “Meet the Press” excerpts, implied yet stopped short of directly accusing Russia with aiding Snowden, 30, who is residing in that country under temporary asylum.

No Accident

“I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow,” Rogers said, referring to Russia’s spy agency.

“There’s questions to be answered there. I don’t think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB,” the Michigan lawmaker said.

The U.S. has charged Snowden with theft and espionage for leaking documents to the Guardian and Washington Post last year that unveiled the breadth of the NSA’s collection of Internet and telephone records.

Snowden, who before going to Russia went to Hong Kong after leaking the documents, has said his goal was to call the public’s attention to programs he believed had expanded with little meaningful oversight. In an interview published in the Post in late December, he said, “All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”

Mission ‘Validated’

As journalists delved into the NSA’s workings based on the documents he provided, “everything that I had been trying to do was validated,” Snowden said. “Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2014. Close

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2014.

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Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2014.

President Barack Obama responded Jan. 17 to seven months of debate instigated by Snowden’s leaks of the data-gathering by U.S. spy agencies. Obama endorsed taking action to ensure that U.S. citizens and allies can have more confidence that their privacy is protected while committing to few specifics. He directed others -- Congress, his attorney general, his intelligence director, a new outside privacy panel -- to propose solutions.

Rogers, in his “Meet the Press” comments, said “if it was a privacy concern” that spurred Snowden, “he didn’t look for information on the privacy side for Americans. He was stealing information that had to do with how we operate overseas to collect information to keep Americans safe.”

‘Go-Bag’

“Some of the things he did were beyond his technical capabilities,” such as “how he arranged travel before he left,” said Rogers. “He had a go-bag, if you will.”

Yevgeny Khorishko, spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment yesterday.

Many of the NSA surveillance programs were initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. Obama’s next steps in determining how they operate have implications for U.S. security and for companies involved in technology, telecommunications and the Internet.

In his Jan. 17 speech in Washington, Obama said that reconciling the interests of national security and personal privacy is a complicated task, made more difficult by rapidly changing technology and evolving threats to the U.S.

No Quick Fix

“This effort will not be completed overnight, and given the pace of technological change, we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time America has this debate,” Obama said. “But I want the American people to know that the work has begun.”

Privacy advocates and representatives of the technology industry characterized Obama’s moves as progress, while saying his actions also fell short of their goals.

Executives of Yahoo! Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc., LinkedIn Corp. and AOL Inc., who had together last month urged changes in NSA surveillance programs, said in a joint statement that “crucial details remain to be addressed.”

Obama said he would require judicial review of requests to query phone call databases and ordered Justice Department and intelligence officials to devise a way to take storage of that data out of the government’s hands.

The collection and storage of millions of telephone records, now done by the NSA, is one of the most contentious issues. Obama said that while there’s “no indication that this database has been intentionally abused,” critics are right that it could yield personal information “and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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