When I asked NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander about the consequences of Mr. Snowden's leaks during a recent Senate hearing, he replied: "If we tell terrorists every way we track them, they will get through, and people will die." Mr. Snowden apparently did not share that concern or did not care.
Mr. Snowden was wrong about key details of these programs, and the press, blogs and members of Congress from both parties have echoed his distortions. For the record: The government is not and cannot indiscriminately listen in on Americans' phone calls or target their emails. It is not collecting the content of conversations or even their location under these programs. For instance, the only telephone data collected is the time of the call, the phone numbers involved and the length of the call. That is how we connect the dots and identify links between international terrorists and their collaborators within the United States. All of this is done under the supervision of the nation's top federal judges, senior officials across several different federal agencies and Congress.
These programs are legal, constitutional and used only under the strict oversight of all three branches of the government, including a highly scrutinized judicial process. Furthermore, members of both political parties review, audit and authorize all activities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I can attest that few issues garner more of our attention than the oversight of these programs.
Elected officials have a duty to the American people to engage in an informed and honest debate. So it troubles me that some of my colleagues in Congress are engaging in disingenuous outrage when they were given ample opportunity to learn more, ask questions and even vote against these programs. Mischaracterizing national-security programs for political gain is irresponsible and has the potential to weaken the country's defenses. Members of Congress must remain vigilant in the face of misleading information about the substance and utility of our counterterrorism activities.
As a result of these leaks and subsequent spread of misinformation, the federal government faces a Catch-22. The administration must disclose more information about the use of these programs to regain the people's trust and ensure the protection of civil liberties, but doing so also compromises the programs. As the NSA chief said in his recent testimony, "Everything depends on trust. . . . We do not see a trade-off between security and liberty. It is not a choice, and we can and must do both simultaneously."
The government's interest in carrying out these programs is the most compelling imaginable: an enduring defense against terrorist attacks that could take thousands of innocent lives. I have no doubt that returning to a pre-9/11 security posture will make this country less safe. A majority of Americans agree, and their support is likely to grow as sensationalism and fear are replaced with facts.Notice how Sen. Coats' exchange with NSA Director Allen conveniently omitted any discussion of how the government could have possibly failed to detect the planning and execution of the Boston Marathon "bombing" despite the government monitoring of the supposed perpetrators of that "terrorist attack." Coats is as corrupt and clueless as they come. He knows full well that it was a false flag attack, but he is completely bought and paid for by the military industrial complex that benefits from this non-stop war on terror. Don't tell us the NSA isn't capturing the content of our e-mails and telephone calls when we know that's a bald-faced lie. I don't know which is more criminal: the NSA's past lies to the public about its unconstitutional surveillance activities, or the lies being told by elected officials like Coats in the face of indisputable evidence of the government's unconstitutional surveillance of us. Even the NSA disclosed as much in its secret briefing to Congress last week. Was Coats holding his hands over his ears? Or did he skip the briefing like most of his colleagues.
Here's what the real patriots are saying about the NSA's activities, Sen. Coats:
When a National Security Agency contractor revealed top-secret details this month on the government's collection of Americans' phone and Internet records, one select group of intelligence veterans breathed a sigh of relief.
Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe belong to a select fraternity: the NSA officials who paved the way.
For years, the three whistle-blowers had told anyone who would listen that the NSA collects huge swaths of communications data from U.S. citizens. They had spent decades in the top ranks of the agency, designing and managing the very data-collection systems they say have been turned against Americans. When they became convinced that fundamental constitutional rights were being violated, they complained first to their superiors, then to federal investigators, congressional oversight committees and, finally, to the news media.
To the intelligence community, the trio are villains who compromised what the government classifies as some of its most secret, crucial and successful initiatives. They have been investigated as criminals and forced to give up careers, reputations and friendships built over a lifetime.
Today, they feel vindicated.
They say the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former NSA contractor who worked as a systems administrator, proves their claims of sweeping government surveillance of millions of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. They say those revelations only hint at the programs' reach.
On Friday, USA TODAY brought Drake, Binney and Wiebe together for the first time since the story broke to discuss the NSA revelations. With their lawyer, Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, they weighed their implications and their repercussions. They disputed the administration's claim of the impact of the disclosures on national security — and President Obama's argument that Congress and the courts are providing effective oversight.
UPDATE: Sen. Coats also took to the Senate floor yesterday to condemn NSA whistle blower as a treasonous traitor, demanding his prosecution. From The Hill:
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said the National Security Agency leaker, Edward Snowden, should be prosecuted “to the full extent of the law” for leaking national security information to newspapers last week.
“What Snowden has done has bordered on treason and I believe he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Coats said on the Senate floor Monday. “Some praise him as a hero and whistleblower, I do not.”I'm guessing Coats would have said the same of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, whose actions were later vindicated despite efforts by the Nixon administration to prosecute him under the Espionage Act at the time.