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Former government contractor Edward Snowden fled Hong Kong and arrived in Moscow yesterday. His flight was aided by the whistle-blower web site Wikileaks. Snowden’s ultimate destination is unknown, but the government of Ecuador confirmed he has requested asylum there. The U.S. has charged Snowden with three felonies: two counts of espionage and one of theft. His passport was revoked on Saturday and a warrant was issued for his request. Diane and her guests discuss the latest on Snowden’s flight and what it means for relations between the U.S. and Russia, China, and any country that ends up taking him in.
- Bruce Auster national security editor for NPR.
- James Bamford author of "The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America."
- Ambassador Nicholas Burns senior foreign affairs columnist for Global Post, politics professor at Harvard University and former under secretary of state.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Former National Security contractor Edward Snowden yesterday left Hong Kong. He arrived in Moscow after the U.S. moved to extradite him to face espionage charges. Secretary of State John Kerry says it would be deeply troubling if those countries had advance notice of Snowden's plans. Ecuador has confirmed he's asked for asylum there.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the latest legal and diplomatic twists in the Snowden case: James Bamford, he's author of "The Shadow Factory" and NPR's national security editor Bruce Auster. Joining us: Harvard professor and columnist for The Globalist, Nicholas Burns. He joins us by phone from Westport, Mass. I know this story has great interest for many of you. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. JAMES BAMFORDGood morning.
MR. BRUCE AUSTERGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to have you all with us. And, Bruce Auster, what do we know about where this young man is?
AUSTERWell, right now, all indications are that he is still in Russia, which is one of the surprises in this episode because, as of yesterday, there was a fairly good sense of what his travel route and plans were going to be. It's an interesting case of a fugitive where you tend to know where he's going, which doesn't often happen in these situations. But the idea was leave Hong Kong. He arrived in Russia yesterday. The idea was that he was going to make his way to Ecuador and seek asylum there.
AUSTERWhat has changed in the last few hours is that there was a flight to Havana this morning. He was supposed to be on that flight or was believed to planning to be on that flight. By all accounts, he did not get on it. We're not sure about that entirely, but it does not look like he gone on it. What we do know is a whole bunch of journalists got on it, so they're on a flight to Cuba without him, apparently.
REHMAnd why Ecuador, James Bamford?
BAMFORDWell, Ecuador is proven very friendly to whistleblowers, basically. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, for example, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the last year because he was wanted on extradition -- for an extradition request and sought asylum there. And they've kept him there for a year so that he couldn't be extradited either to Sweden or the United States.
REHMAnd, Nick Burns, how did Edward Snowden get out of Hong Kong? What happened to the U.S. extradition request?
PROF. NICHOLAS BURNSWell, he apparently got out because the Hong Kong authorities allowed him to do that. You have to believe that the Chinese government had influence over the Hong Kong authorities in that decision. It appears to have been a political decision because the Justice Department says it submitted a legal request and sufficient information. His passport has been revoked by the State Department, and so he appears to be travelling on refugee documents granted to him by the Ecuadorian government, which is a very anti-American government. And they're playing politics with us as well.
REHMSo what is the U.S. doing now, Nick Burns?
BURNSWell, the United States has engaged in what amounts, Diane, to an international manhunt. This gentleman has broken several U.S. laws. He's violated his pledge to the United States government to protect classified information. He's really violated, in a larger sense, I think, his pledge to the American people, to be a good steward. He is not a whistleblower.
BURNSA whistleblower is someone who stands up within a system, say, within the United States government, and appeals to his boss or the head of the agency or the president or a member of Congress and says, I see something is not right. He's not a whistleblower. He's engaging an outright act of political defiance of the United States, and I think a lot Americans would maybe brand him to be a traitor, guilty of harming our country.
REHMJames Bamford, how do you see it?
BAMFORDI do see him as a whistleblower. He's certainly not a traitor. He's telling the American public what the U.S. government has been doing and what the U.S. government has been lying to the American public about. This had been going on since 2001. You know, the Bush administration lied to the American public for 2 1/2 years while they were illegally eavesdropping on American communications. Here you have the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lying to Congress about whether or not they're surveilling, whether they have a program for surveillance on Americans.
REHMTell us exactly what he said.
BAMFORDWell, he was asked whether there were millions of Americans under surveillance, there was a program of surveilling millions of Americans in the United States, and he answered, no. And he was given that question the day before, and he could have objected to it. They gave him a chance to correct it the day after. He didn't correct it.
BAMFORDSo he preferred to have the -- what he calls, I guess, the least offensive truth or whatever his sort of Orwellian answer was. He didn't call it a lie. He called it sort of the -- not exactly a lie or something. To the American public, that's a lie for telling them that they aren't doing what they are doing. Most people above five years old, that would be considered a lie.
AUSTERWell, what I think is interesting here in this debate over is he a whistleblower or is he not a whistleblower is you're getting a shift in the debate. The question now because of the latest actions that Mr. Snowden has taken have turned the focus, in some part, on him, his motivations and his behaviors as opposed to the initial disclosure. I mean, that's what we've been talking about the last few weeks, is...
AUSTER...is the United States surveilling its own citizens or not?
AUSTERSnowden's actions in this case are interesting because of the choice of country's he's working with to essentially get away from U.S. authorities. He...
REHMSomehow ironic choice of countries.
AUSTERExactly. And so there's a debate emerging, and you're hearing a little of it here, about who he is and what he really intended, what his motives are because now he's working, you know, theoretically, the Chinese government may have something to do with him getting out of Hong Kong. He transits via Russia. The other countries include Cuba, possibly Venezuela, then Ecuador, and so this notion of him as a pure whistleblower is at least a debate now and risks, at some level, distracting from the original purpose, which was to raise questions about the American surveillance system.
REHMNick Burns, do you agree with that?
BURNSWell, I think it is ironic that here's someone, Snowden, who says he's for Internet freedom, and he's being aided and abetted by all the governments against Internet freedom, by anti-democratic governments, by Russia and China, by Ecuador which just passed an anti-media law in April, which has been denounced around the world by journalist. So I think the problem for him is that he gave his word to the U.S. government. He did not...
REHMI want to stop you right there, Nick. Tell me about the pledge he signed. Do you know exactly what that pledge was?
BURNSWell, in receiving a security clearance from the U.S. government, and he had one, obviously, the work where he was working, he pledged to protect classified information. He pledged not to divulge it. He accepted the fact that if he violated that pledge, he should be prosecuted. I signed that same pledge along with millions of other people who've served the United States government, and we all know what the penalty is.
BURNSAnd so instead of dissenting within the system, as a whistleblower properly should, he fled, and he went public. And instead of facing the music in his country, he now seeks refuge in authoritarian countries. This is a real irony, and I think it exposes his motives. And I think it exposes the fact that he's someone in a very arrogant way decided to put his own interest ahead of his country. So that is something that -- which I find very troubling.
REHMAll right. And, James Bamford, you wrote in The Washington Post yesterday about someone who did try to go through channels, William Binney. What happened to him?
BAMFORDWell, he actually tried to blow the whistle all the way up to the attorney general of the Unites States. He met with people in the attorney general's office. And it wasn't just him. He had other people with him that were other former senior NSA officials that wanted to bring those to the government's attention that they were violating the law.
REHMAnd what happened?
BAMFORDAnd what happened to him was nothing happened. I mean, that was the problem. Nobody paid any attention to him. Nobody considered what he was saying, either in the NSA or at the Justice Department. And it was only after that that they began talking to me. And I wrote an article last year for Wired magazine. And now he's really the opposite of Edward Snowden. Bill Binney had been there for almost 40 years. He was the civilian equivalent of a general basically, a senior intelligence official.
BAMFORDHe was a person who basically designed the entire eavesdropping system around the world, and he quit NSA after almost 40 years out of protest because he was seeing that that system that he designed to eavesdrop on people outside the United States was being turned to eavesdrop on people inside the United States.
REHMAnd that was under the Bush administration but continued.
BAMFORDIt's continued basically all the programs that were under the Bush administration. It just continued. It's just that they were given this imprimatur of legality by this new FISA Amendments Act.
REHMAll right. Now, I gather that Edward Snowden cited Binney when he decided to release all those documents and talk with the Guardian.
BAMFORDWell, he did. And there's other reports where you saw what happened to other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, for example, another NSA whistleblower, and other people where they try to tell the truth and what happened was the government basically denied a lot of what they were saying. And, you know, when you're seeing that, then you feel that, well, the only way I could get the public to understand this for true -- as the truth is by exposing the documents.
AUSTERWhat's interesting in this case -- and I think James makes a good point here. What's interesting is the way in which the drama of this particular episode, the leaked documents and then the emergence of this character, Mr. Snowden, who reveals that what happened, hides the fact that a lot of this had been debated in Congress before but no one paid attention.
REHMBruce Auster, he is national security editor for NPR. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the latest in regard to a former national security contractor, Edward Snowden, who left Hong Kong, who is now assumed to be in Moscow. It was thought he was taking off on a plane today for Cuba. However, the plane from Moscow, an Aeroflot, left for Cuba with a number of reporters on board but no Edward Snowden. One email asks, "Do we know if he still has the computers and data with him?" Bruce Auster.
AUSTERI should caution that in this case, everything we think we know, we maybe don't know. But with that caveat, the evidence indicates that he has -- there have been reports that he's carrying four laptops with him. I don't know for sure if that's true. But this -- these are the kind of reports that are out there that he has this information he still has it with him. There is a general sense that he has taken somewhere on the order of 200 documents. So we've seen leaks of a handful so far. That would suggest there's quite a lot more to come.
AUSTERAnd the question now is, on the assumption that he does, in fact, have this material, did the Chinese government, while he was in Hong Kong, have any way of accessing his computer? And in his short stay in Russia, did the Russian government or does the Russia government have the opportunity to somehow get access to his computer? Those are questions we're going to be watching.
BAMFORDWell, it's fairly easy for a government to get a mirror image of what's on a computer. It could be done in very short period of time. And so I would assume at some point those computers were out of his hands or left in a room when he wasn't there. So whether or not he gave the computers over, the Chinese probably could've gotten access just as the Russians probably got access to the same computers when he flew in to Russia.
REHMWell, of course, the U.S. has been complaining for months now that China has been doing all this theft of data. This kind of puts the U.S. in a very tricky position, Nick Burns, as regards to both China and Russia.
BURNSWell, it is clearly going to complicate our relationship with both of those countries. You'll remember when President Obama met President Xi Jinping of China in California two weeks ago, the White House said publicly that the president put on the table the issue of the widespread theft of American business intellectual property by the Chinese authorities. And, of course, there are Russian hacker gangs that are continually threatening American IPR, intellectual property as well.
BURNSSo if the Chinese government and the Russian government are now effectively repudiating the United States on a very serious extradition request, and you saw the White House issued a statement, Diane, just after midnight complaining about the Russian government actions, I think there'll be serious consequences for the relationship in this sense. The American public, and I think Congress, is going to be -- take the position that these countries don't help us on very important issues to us.
BURNSThe next time China or Russia want help from the United States, and that day will surely come, they may not get that help from the U.S. because reciprocity is a time-honored principle in international politics and in diplomacy. So it may look like China and Russia have the advantage here. But I think the tables could be turned on them fairly quickly because they need the United States for all sorts of things.
REHMWhat do you think of this action on the part of Russia? How does that affect our relationship with the Russians on the Syria question? Nick.
BURNSYou know, I think that governments have the ability to operate on several different levels. And, you know, I assume we're going to have to continue to talk to the Russians about Syria. But it does point, Diane, to this larger pattern of behavior by President Putin. He never misses an opportunity to tweak the United States, to criticize the United States, to try to put us in a difficult position.
BURNSAnd, you know, as I said, we may have a mutual interest in talking to the Russians on Syria. We clearly have a disagreement with them on Syria. But there'll come a time when that Congress has to vote a measure pertaining to Russia. There'll be no support there for the Russian federation, and Putin should realize that.
BAMFORDWell, the problem also is that this can be considered a political crime. And usually, from what I understand, at least, the -- if you're trying to get somebody extradited, the crime that you're trying to extradite them on has to be the same crime and the country that you're trying to get them on, in other words, murder, robbery, that kind of thing.
BAMFORDIn this case, there is no law in either China or Russia against giving U.S. secrets to the press. So that's a problem. And then, is this just a political crime? So there is a -- it isn't as though he actually did a crime that's sort of universally recognized, like I said, like murder or hijacking a plane or something. This is something that's very different.
AUSTERWell, this raises a really interesting question, which is that we have this dance here between the legal questions and political decisions. So at every step of the way, governments are saying that they're making decisions based on the law. So, for example, the extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the United States, there is a very complicated back and forth between the two governments about the quality of the American legal preparation.
AUSTERWas the request appropriate and so forth? And in the end, Hong Kong begged off saying, well, there was some T's not quite crossed. But in the end, it was really a political decision because they chose that it was better for them to have him out of their territory. Russia is making a similar calculation. And the Russian government is acting as if it had no knowledge that he was getting on Aeroflot.
AUSTERPresident Putin spokesman made some comment to the effect that we're not ticket agents. We don't know everyone who's on every plane. But clearly, people knew what was happening and calculated that it was in their interests to have this play out the way it's playing out.
REHMWhat about the reporters he contacted? Could they be subject to any charges? Yesterday on "Meet the Press," David Gregory, the host, asked columnist Glenn Greenwald of the...
REHM...of The Guardian why he should not be charged with a crime for working with Edward Snowden. What was your reaction to that, Bruce?
AUSTERIt's a complicated question. There are all sorts of -- as we've seen -- very complicated reasons why you do not go after journalists. The AP case that we've seen recently in which the Obama administration has been prosecuting leakers has really raised questions about the chilling effect on the First Amendment and so forth. And so there is a real sense that you don't want to go there and especially not go after the reporter as opposed to going after the person who provided the documents.
AUSTERThe question that's now being raised about Glenn Greenwald, is he blurring the line? Is he wearing a journalist hat one day and an advocate's hat the next? And that's the question. His role within The Guardian is very interesting because if you read the articles each time a document is released, they're really crisply done. They are within the standards of what you would expect The Guardian newspaper to do. As soon as he steps outside of that role and appears on a television program, for example, he becomes an advocate. And so that's the tricky part for him.
REHMBut doesn't it depend on what he says on the television program?
AUSTERSure. And the question for him is: Will there be some sense that he is, in a way, abetting Edward Snowden? It's one thing to take the documents and publish them. It's another thing to essentially help with the effort to keep the documents. And so that's what I think people are debating.
BAMFORDWell, I think the administration has sort of been edging that -- in that direction. But I don't think they've come that close. When I wrote my first book, "The Puzzle Palace," the Reagan administration came after me and threatened me with the Espionage Act at one point because I had gotten documents from the Carter administration. And they were released to me under the Freedom of Information Act. They were unclassified. And then when the Reagan administration came in, they reclassified them as top secret.
REHMI remember that.
BAMFORDAnd then they threatened me with prosecution if I didn't give them back. And we argued I wasn't given classified documents. I was given unclassified documents by the previous attorney general. And eventually, Reagan changed the law to say once the documents have been declassified, it can be reclassified. But they couldn't apply in my case because of the principle of ex post facto.
REHMSo what are the diplomatic and legal options that the U.S. has at this point to get Edward Snowden back into this country and perhaps bring him to trial on the charges they brought, Nick Burns?
BURNSWell, they -- the U.S. government has to hope that, some way or other, Snowden ends up transiting an airport at the capital of a friendly country. The irony here, Diane, is that there are 195 countries in the U.N. General Assembly. United States has pretty good relations with most of them, except for six or seven, and those six or seven are all the protagonists in this drama -- China, Russia, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, wherever he may be going -- and those countries kind of live to make life difficult for the United States.
BURNSSo if he is able to get to one of those countries and they give him refuge, they give him refugee status -- that is, they protect him -- then the U.S. government will not be able to reach him. But he'll live a very isolated, sad life. He'll be like Julian Assange, who's in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, unable to travel because the U.K. will arrest him as soon as he steps foot outside that embassy. He'll be an international pariah, an international outlaw.
BURNSAnd again, Diane, this goes back to this question that, I think, all employees of the U.S. government and former employees have to face. You give an oath, you say you're going to protect your country, and then you don't. There have to be consequences for that. I think most people would say that's reasonable. He should be prosecuted because he admits he broke the law.
REHMOne -- OK. One last question on that contract he signed. Is it exactly the same for a contractor as it is for a government employee?
BURNSWell, the issue here is to get a -- to receive a security clearance from the U.S. government. Whether you're a contractor or whether you're a full-time employee, as I was in my career, you have to attest that you will abide by all the rules governing that classified information. And the primary rule is you will not disclose it to people outside the U.S. government.
BURNSAnd he has willfully done it. He's admitted he's done it. He's now given several press conferences where he's been very open about that. So he's put himself into a position of extreme jeopardy should he fall into the hands of the U.S. government, as I hope he will. And that's the problem, the legal problem that he has now.
REHMAll right. James.
BAMFORDIt's interesting all these people screaming for justice to bring Snowden to a court of law and prosecute him. Where were all these people when the Bush administration was getting us into wars based on lies and false information, people who give false information before Congress? The Bush administration broke the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for 2 1/2 years. Nobody went to jail for that. Nobody was prosecuted.
BAMFORDThe telecom companies supplied information, supplied documents to the -- and access to the Bush administration in violation of the law, and they were granted immunity by Congress after the fact. So it's interesting that nobody ever wants to put government officials in jail for doing something, but whistleblowers they're going after like crazy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Bruce, I know you wanted to add something.
AUSTERJust one thing that Nick Burns mentioned. The number of countries that we're talking about here, it's not a coincidence. If you think about -- if you were trying to plan what this run to Ecuador, Nick -- or Edward Snowden has had to essentially map out a travel route where there are flights that get you there.
AUSTERSo you have to figure out which countries you can go to, and then you have to overlay that with a list of countries that will not then hand you over to the United States. That narrows the set quite a lot, and so you end up with people going over airline maps that show you going from Russia to Cuba, to Venezuela, to Ecuador, all countries that won't hand him to the United States.
BAMFORDI think the most dramatic ending to this would be, because a flight from Moscow to Cuba normally overflies U.S. airspace at one point, and I think the most dramatic scenario for an ending would be if it carried on its normal route over a portion of U.S. territory, like Florida or whatever, and the U.S. sends fighters up to force it down into the U.S. to get him off the plane. Now, they've actually discussed this, and they've...
REHMHow do you know this?
BAMFORDWell, I've just read this that they've -- there have been discussions on different routes in the plane occasionally because of whether it flies along the Atlantic Coast outside of U.S. jurisdiction. So, in that point, I think he'd be safe. But, again, if you're looking for the most dramatic ending, I think that would be it.
REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones, first to Carrollton, Texas. Good morning, Jim.
JIMGood morning. How are you?
REHMI'm good. How are you?
REHMGood. Go right ahead, sir.
JIMThank you. I am really upset that our elected and appointed officials seem to have forgotten who they worked for. Can you imagine if you had an employee that was spying on you and, when asked, they denied it? When caught red-handed, they insisted it was for our own good. These people are -- and this is from President Obama on down -- these people are on very shaky grounds because they forgot that it's their employer that they're spying on.
BAMFORDWell, I agree. That's the problem, I think, is you've got the administration, not only this one -- obviously the last one -- who are always saying this is always for our own good. You know, we're going to war in Iraq because it's for our own good. Well, you know, we only find out afterwards that these things aren't for our own good.
BAMFORDAnd as you said, the government works for us, and they shouldn't be spying on us and then lying about whether they're spying on us. And I think they need some accountability. It's not just whistle-blowers that need accountability. It's the government employees that need accountability.
AUSTERThe other side of that argument -- and, really, this is one of these debates where what happens, it's in the eye of the beholder. Whether you believed the legal protections are adequate or not really depends on where -- your vantage on this. But despite what the revelations indicate, there's been no indication so far that any of what is being done by the NSA is being done outside the law.
AUSTERAnd the notion is that, yes, data by Americans is swept up into this, but there are legal protections that keep the NSA from looking at your emails, your phone calls. You can choose to believe that or not, but that is sort of the argument right now.
REHMYou know, on this asylum question, has the U.S. ever granted asylum to individuals that Russia, China or other countries have demanded to be extradited, James Bamford?
BAMFORDI'm not an expert on asylum, so I really couldn't answer that question. There's been, I think, numerous times when people have been asked, but most of the time it's always on legitimate criminal grounds for regular crime. But on these political issues, I'm not too sure about.
REHMAll right. James Bamford, his book on the NSA was called "The Puzzle Palace"...
BAMFORD"Shadow Factory." Oh, "The Puzzle Palace."
REHM...and then you have "The Shadow Factory" as well. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd just to bring you up to date, we have no major decision from the Supreme Court on the fate of affirmative action in the United States. In fact, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the 5th Circuit's decision in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case. They decided to send it back to the lower court. We'll be talking about that decision in our next hour. Now, let's go back to the phones. To Richmond, Va. Good morning, John. You're on the air.
JOHNOne of your guests earlier mentioned the fact that Edward Snowden was now seeking refuge in an authoritarian country to sort of imply that he was somehow, you know, a puppet of an anti-American force. I just wanted to say that to me, it seems to really illustrate how far we've moved away from our democratic roots to, you know, towards authoritarianism that someone like Edward Snowden has to seek refuge in an authoritarian country.
REHMWhat do you say to that, James Bamford?
BAMFORDWell, people have very limited options once something like this takes place. And this is, I think, Julian Assange is one perfect example. He's been held up in an embassy -- the embassy for over a year now for Ecuador. And so there's very few places a person can go. It's tragic that the...
REHMCan he ever get out of that embassy?
BAMFORDWell, he can get out of it. The problem is as soon as he walks out the front door, the British government will arrest him, and then the whole process of extradition will begin. The other option would be to seek some kind of negotiated settlement with both the British, the Swedish government who are extraditing him in the U.S. who may have the secret warrant for his arrest for his taking part in WikiLeaks and so forth. So it's hard to say. There are a very few places to go, and most of them are not -- you have to really change your lifestyle to go live there.
AUSTERWell, it shows the constraints you're under when you're someone like Edward Snowden and you have a choice. I mean, you don't want to be caught. And at a certain point, you have to start compromising your values. And Ecuador is a place where he could go. Ecuador is not known for its press freedom, so you're left with the irony that a person who is taking a stand for the rights of people and individual rights ends up going a place where they don't fully respect those.
REHMAll right. To Cape Cod, Mass. Good morning, Brian.
BRIANGood morning. I'm a -- I want to thank you for the show. I'm a strong supporter of Snowden's actions. I consider it quite heroic. He took a personal risk to show that our government is acting contrary to our own laws, you know. I grew up in a Cold War era, and I was told that we fought against the Soviet Union because they were a repressive regime.
BRIANThey spied on the wrong people, and they couldn't control their own government. And he is bringing to light the fact that this is happening in our own country. So I wish this -- I appreciate the debate, but I wish we could focus on what our government is doing in the excesses of a borderless war, no -- of peace. And people like Snowden are bringing to light and starting a debate that needs to be had.
BURNSOne of the reasons to respond to this question, Diane, that I oppose Snowden is that I trust our government. Now, our government is not always right, and when it's not right, we need to hold it accountable. But there is a very serious issue of national security that hasn't been raised by anybody this morning. We face threats around the world, and we need a disciplined and effective government to face those threats.
BURNSAnd we cannot have government employees who are government contractors, standing up on soap boxes and shouting out their own private views. We've got to have a government that is able to respond. And yesterday, Gen. Keith Alexander was on the morning -- I think the ABC morning show, and he said publicly that what he is doing is defending the nation and countering terrorist attacks, I think, has a compelling argument that just can't be lightly dismissed by the critics.
BURNSAnd so that national security imperative obviously has to be balanced by a legitimate protection of our constitutional rights. The president referred to that debate a couple of weeks ago. But it's a very big part of this debate, and it can't be lost in this discussion.
REHMAll right. And clearly, lots of different opinions on this. Good morning, Christopher.
CHRISTOPHERGood morning, Diane. I just like to point out that people seem to forget that we are, in fact, the ones who hired our government. You know, it's hard to have such a dislike and such an astounding -- just the shock and awe factor when you realize that we are the ones who elected them and gave them the power to do what they do, to protect our country, our citizens, and to keep America really what it is, the amazing country that it is.
REHMWhat about that, James Bamford, that we have to realize the government is there trying to do its job, offering security to its people?
BAMFORDWell, I just did a current story for Wired magazine on Gen. Alexander, the director of NSA and also the commander of the Cyber Command. And the problem is these people have grown in power more than anybody, I think, realizes. Gen. Alexander, today, has more power than anybody in the history of U.S. intelligence.
BAMFORDWell, first of all, he's been there nine years almost, longer than any other person in the history of U.S. intelligence. He runs the most secret and largest intelligence agency in the world, the NSA, 35,000 people. In addition to that, he runs a central security service, which is all the military that aids NSA. And now he's in charge of Cyber Command. In that capacity, he has his own military. He has the Second Army under him, he has a 24th Air Force, and he has the 10th Navy Fleet under him.
BAMFORDThis is under a person who is so secret that, until yesterday, almost nobody had ever seen him. So we're putting enormous amounts of power, secret power in very small hand -- few people that control this, and they are really almost unaccountable. You have half the people working for the defense contractors. And you can't send a Freedom of Information Act to Booz Allen. I mean, these people are a lot less...
BAMFORDWell, because it's a private company. You can't send it to a private company.
REHMSo they're exempt from FOIA?
BAMFORDWell, they're exempt for almost anything. They're contractors for the government, so they're not accountable to the public. I mean, you can't send a Freedom of Information Act to a private company. You have to send it to a government agency.
AUSTERI mean, there's a couple levels of questions here. One is the idea of accountability. And there's no question that the NSA is an enormously powerful organization, and Gen. Alexander is at the head of it and oversees this operation. The question is, are you comfortable or not with the legal protections that are built into the system? And some people will see them and see nothing but loopholes.
AUSTERBut it is the case that there are, for example, when analysts are looking at the phone records that the government is allowed to have, there are limits on the number of people who are allowed to see that. There are limits on the way in which they can query the data. So there is oversight. There are inspector generals who are supposed to watch over those people. You have the FISA court, which some people see as a rubberstamp but other people see as actually a far more rigorous process of oversight, and you have the Senate committees that are watching it.
AUSTERSo there's a legal structure that oversees the sort of technological powerhouse that is NSA. Some people will see that and think that it's adequate. Other people will see that and see that it is full of loopholes. And that is the debate that we're having right now. The one other point I would make is that part of what's happening in this day and age, we're going through an information revolution. And the reason that this debate is emerging now is because things have changed so much in the past 10 years.
AUSTERAnd where communications are happening that are potentially a threat to the United States aren't just on telephones anymore. They are happening in chat rooms. They are happening in emails. They are happening in coded communications that transit through the servers of companies like Google. And so the NSA's charge is to know about those communications.
AUSTERAnd like the old Willie Sutton thing, you got to go where the money is. That's where the communication is. So if the communication is taking place in that world, the NSA has grown to be able to monitor that world. The question then is, can I do it in a way where there are checks and balances on their power?
REHMAnd so far not many, James Bamford?
BAMFORDNo. And there are -- I mean, it would have been much more, I think, acceptable to a lot of people if somebody put a bill through Congress saying, this is what we're going to do. We're going to have the NSA pick up everybody's telephone records on a daily basis and keep them for as long as we want. That would be an interesting debate to have. And if it went through Congress and it was debated and the public supported it, then, fine, I'd be happy with that that. But that's not the way it works.
BAMFORDIt's -- everything is done in secret. And it's supposedly because the terrorists -- we don't want the terrorists to notice. Well, all the terrorists, having written about this for decades, automatically assume that everything that they're saying on the phone is picked up. So I don't think it's a big secret to them. It's just a big secret to the American public.
BURNSDiane, can I offer an opinion here? Would you mind?
REHMSure. Of course. Go right ahead.
BURNSI just want to say in response to Mr. Bamford, whom I don't know and haven't met, everybody in the United States' government is accountable to somebody else. Everybody in the federal government agency is accountable to the Congress and congressional oversight to the president. And the president is accountable to law and the American people. That's how our system works.
BURNSSo to infer that somehow there's, you know, people are operating just out in the ether without any restrictions is just not accurate. Secondly, the biggest threat to us now, the new threat to our national security are cyber threats, from private gangs stealing public information and private company information to governments trying steal our classified information.
BURNSOur government has to respond to that, and we have to permit our government to respond to that. We have to hope that we're effective in doing if the government is to fulfill the number one responsibility, protect the country and protect the people in it. So you can't have a discussion about what's been happening with Snowden without putting these national security issues on the table.
BAMFORDWell, the mantra is always national security no matter what the government does. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, everything is national security. The warrantless wiretapping, it's all national security. Luckily in this country, there are lot of people who disagree with that, and I think some of these people are very brave. I think Tom Drake was brave for speaking out. Manning was brave in releasing a lot of the material.
BAMFORDI don't agree that the way it was released was proper, but I think that there are people out there who see what's going wrong. And if the government was not doing some of these things, you wouldn't have the whistleblowers. We didn't them pre-9/11. We were having them the last 10 years because the government has gone so far over to the secret surveillance society and constant wars. That's why you're getting whistleblowers.
REHMAll right. To East Hampton, N.Y. Good morning, Harry.
HARRYGood morning, Diane. And it is very interesting conversation, but I think the one thing we really haven't talked about is, what do we mean when we say that we are surveilling the public? We don't listen to the conversations. As I understand it, the telephone companies were indicating what numbers were being dialed. We don't listen to the intimate relationships between people.
HARRYWe are just finding out what numbers are dialed, and we trace these numbers to numbers that we think are suspicious. From my point of view, if we had a house on a street that we knew was an al-Qaida hideout and one American citizen knocked on the door and went in, don't you think we have the right to bring that person to justice and talk them about what he spoke about, et cetera?
REHMAll right. Harry, thanks for your call. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Bruce.
AUSTERI think the caller raises some interesting points. There have been two programs that have been discussed publicly lately. One of them, as the caller mentioned, involves telephone data. And essentially what's happening here is that on a regular basis, every phone call made within the United States or calls between someone here and someone overseas essentially gets collected. But they're taking the data, the phone number that called another phone number, the length of the call, when the call happened.
AUSTERThat's supposed to be it. That gets put on a shelf. As people are describing it, they use the needle-in-a-haystack analogy, and what they're saying is that's the haystack. So they get the haystack, but they can't really look in the haystack until they know or have reasonable suspicion to go looking for a particular number. So, for example, the Boston bombing case.
AUSTERAt the point at which there were numbers of the brothers who were involved in that act were of interest, they could go immediately to that collection of data and start looking at who those people were calling. And the idea is that in a fast-paced investigation, you want to be able to get access to that data in a quick way. So having it available and ready to go to is the logic of it. People will still stay say, why can't you go to it later? And that's the debate.
BAMFORDWell, in terms of the phone calls, you know, people are forgetting another whistleblower a few years ago, a guy named Mark Klein, who worked for AT&T, and he revealed the fact that NSA had a very secret room built into the AT&T switch. This is a 10-story, windowless building controlling all the communications in the Northwest.
BAMFORDAnd all the communications, telephone and email, went through that room and was filtered by NSA computers and software and so forth. So there is a much more surveillance that goes on than people really realize. That hasn't really even been discussed much of these days.
REHMAnd finally, Bruce, how do you think this incident affects the political thinking about the White House these days?
AUSTERThis has had a number of consequences. I mean, the current episode in which he gets out of Hong Kong and is now on the run has made the administration really look like it's caught flat-footed. I mean, yesterday the number of comments coming out of the Department of Justice, the Department of State, if you looked for a sense of what is the U.S. government going to do next, you're sort of left with the idea that there are no good options.
AUSTERAnd getting to that point does not make you look very good. I mean, the fact that they now have to sort of appeal to the Russian government or appeal to Ecuador, you know, maybe there is leverage down the road, but it's not clear how that will play out.
REHMHow do you see it, James?
BAMFORDIn terms of how it's going to play out in the end, you know, it's really up in the air right now and literally up in the air if Snowden is on his way to one of the number of different countries. So we have to see where he lands and what happens.
REHMOne more comment, Bruce.
AUSTERSure. And the other impact is if you watched President Obama's poll numbers, this particular incident, this scandal if you want to call it that has affected his voters. It's young people, its people who are savvy about the Internet, who value privacy, they are the ones who are moving away from him. And so there's a huge political impact on him in that regard.
REHMBruce Auster, he's with NPR. Nick Burns, he's at Harvard, and James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace" and "The Shadow Factory." Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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