The House Intelligence Committee chairman said he wasn’t sure what would come of President Barack Obama’s proposal to shift custody of U.S. phone records away from the government and to the private sector.
“That’s interjected a level of uncertainty and having a whole bunch of us scratch our head,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday. “Can you put the proper oversight on these programs? I think we have. I think we did.”
Obama, in a Jan. 17 speech, confirmed his intention to leave the core of U.S. electronic surveillance programs in place while beginning a process inside the administration to work out details and continuing the debate within Congress about the balance between privacy and security.
The changes Obama did announce are important steps toward making necessary changes to the National Security Agency’s surveillance authority before it expires next year, said Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and NSA critic.
Obama “showed he was listening to those of us across the political spectrum,” Udall said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday. “I feel like I’ve been a voice in the wilderness all these years. And we’re now in a position to keep faith with the Constitution, to also respect Americans’ privacy.”
Edward Snowden, the fugitive former contractor who leaked classified NSA documents, “was a thief” who had possible Russian assistance and has “incredibly harmed” the U.S. military, Rogers said.
“This was a thief, who we believe had some help, who stole information, the vast majority had nothing to do with privacy,” he said on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” broadcast yesterday.
“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.
Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a joint appearance with Rogers that Snowden “may well have” had assistance.
“This isn’t somebody who comes upon something and says this isn’t the right thing for the government to do,” Feinstein, a California Democrat, said. “He came there with the intent to take as much material down as he possibly could.”
Rogers has offered the only public characterization of a classified Defense Department 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.
Rogers implied yet stopped short of directly accusing Russia with aiding Snowden, 30, who is residing in that country under temporary asylum.
“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.”
Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” that he thinks Snowden had help.
“I personally believe that he was cultivated by a foreign power to do what he did,” said McCaul, a Texas Republican.
The U.S. has charged Snowden with theft and espionage for leaking documents to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and the 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.”
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.”
Obama’s Jan. 17 announcement in Washington followed 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.”
“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 respond to an e-mail seeking comment and a person answering the phone yesterday said to call back today.
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 speech, 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.
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.”