June 22 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration is undertaking a “holistic” effort to declassify more details about government surveillance activities to give the public a better picture of the programs.
The intelligence collection is “a cornerstone” in measures to keep the country safe and the administration needs to tell “a complete story” about its use, Holder said in an interview yesterday in the conference room adjoining his fifth floor office at the the Justice Department.
“We’d like to do it sooner rather than later, but I also think that we want to do this in such a way that we tell a complete story,” Holder said. “You want to have something that will be understandable to people that have access to this information, something that is not piecemeal, but really is holistic.”
Revelations from a former National Security Administration contractor have revived the national debate over the reach of federal government’s national security surveillance programs.
Holder said there is “the need for more to be declassified, more to be discussed” about the government’s secret collection of telephone and Internet data under a law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
That includes more information about the two data collection programs revealed by Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton Corp. employee who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency. Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong, has been charged with espionage in a sealed complaint filed by federal prosecutors, according to two U.S. officials.
One of those, called Prism, monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks. Under another, Verizon Communications Inc. was compelled to provide the NSA with customers’ telephone records.
Snowden, during an Internet question-and-answer session on the website of the Guardian newspaper, said the programs were “nakedly, aggressively criminal acts” that were “wrong no matter the target.”
U.S. lawmakers and civil-liberties groups have sought more information on the programs, which Snowden leaked to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the government for violating citizens’ privacy. The group’s deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said the phone record collection is “a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”
Holder said there is a lot of “misinformation” about the programs.
“I think we can help clear up by declassifying things, so I think that’s what we’re intending to do,” he said.
Holder said the administration is trying to balance transparency and national security.
“We want to do this in a thoughtful way, in as fast a way as we can, but we want to be responsible about the way in which we do it,” he said.
Holder, 62, said the U.S. “ought to consider” ways to declassify the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret to review and authorize surveillance requests for national security purposes.
President Barack Obama and intelligence officials have said the surveillance programs helped disrupt more than 50 terrorism threats in the U.S. and overseas.
Obama said during a June 19 news conference in Germany that he wants to “find ways to declassify further some of these programs without completely compromising their effectiveness, sharing that information with the public.”
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills to require the declassification of the court’s opinions that authorized the data collection.
Senator Jeff Merkley, and Oregon Democrat and co-sponsor of Senate legislation to declassify “significant” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions, said in a June 19 letter to Obama that the NSA’s efforts “raised profound questions about the reach of the surveillance programs into the lives of every American.”
Holder said declassifying full opinions is delicate because many include details that “tend to reveal sources and methods.”
Holder pushed to dispel the notion that the court, composed of 11 judges who serve on a rotating basis, is a “rubber stamp” when Justice Department attorneys seek approval and reauthorization of intelligence programs and surveillance.
“It is offensive,” Holder said of any perception of the court as approving anything the Justice Department brings its way. Prosecutors in department’s national security division thoroughly vet applications before taking them to the court and take pains not to bring applications that would be rejected, he said.
In 2012, the government presented 212 applications to the court under the provision that authorizes the access to “certain business records,” according to an April 30 letter from the Justice Department’s office of legislative affairs to lawmakers. All but 12 of those applications were modified before approval, which Holder said shows the court’s oversight and an effective process.
Obama held his first meeting yesterday with a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board created to ensure government surveillance operations don’t trample on privacy rights.
The five-member board was created in 2004 and made an independent unit in 2007 after recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The board’s chairman, David Medine, a lawyer and former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission, was confirmed by the Senate last month.
While members nominated by Obama were confirmed, the board didn’t have a chairman for six years until Medine was sworn in May 29 after being confirmed, 53-45, in a party-line vote. Obama had nominated him in 2011.
The board is charged with reviewing actions by government agencies to protect citizens from terrorism, ensuring a balance between protection and civil liberties. It’s required to report to Congress on its activities at least twice a year.
The board lacks subpoena power, is still hiring staff and doesn’t have permanent offices.
Obama’s first and only attorney general, Holder has been the country’s top law enforcement official since February 2009.
While Holder said he understands the skepticism about the programs and the government’s defense of them, he said they are legal and conducted with the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress.
“We deal in an era now where the threats to the American people, to the homeland, are more acute perhaps than they’ve been in a great deal of time,” Holder said. “We have to protect the American people.”
He said he spends between “50 and 60 percent” of his time working on national security issues. Each day starts with a classified briefing book and a meeting at FBI headquarters across the street from the Justice Department. There, along with senior Justice Department and FBI officials, he goes through the “threat stream” of the prior 24 hours in a meeting that typically lasts 30 minutes to an hour.
“That is a very sobering half hour, 45 minute, sometimes hour-long meeting, because you see in raw form what various organizations and people around the world are trying to do to American interests,” Holder said.
He rejected criticism from lawmakers and civil liberties groups that he and Obama -- both critical of the anti-terror programs under President George W. Bush -- were sacrificing the privacy rights of Americans in order to continue the programs.
“It is legally sanctioned,” he said. “There is rigorous oversight. It is something that is consistent with laws passed by congress, reviewed extensively within the executive branch.”
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