Senators Look to Prevent Another Snowden

Ideas include reforming top-secret clearance process, an NSA internal affairs unit and regular reviews of old clearances.

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

From left: Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Saxby Chambliss speak to members of the media about the NSA collecting phone records on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2013.

Correction Appended: June 12, 2013

The Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session grilled Army General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, on Tuesday for the leaks of highly classified information by Edward Snowden, a low-level NSA contractor, according to members of the committee. This was first of what is likely to be many such uncomfortable sessions before congressional committees.

Alexander is “perplexed by it too,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, told TIME. “Obviously, General Alexander does not review or interview every applicant. But he is concerned about the process, about the use of contractors versus NSA employees. All of this is going to be looked at in light of these leaks taking place.”

For her part, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, who has called Snowden a traitor, wants to know how so many contractors are given access to such sensitive information. “I’m very concerned that we have government contractors doing what are essentially governmental jobs and, I think, particularly with highly classified information,” Feinstein said. “Government people, who take an oath to keep that information secure, should be the ones” handling sensitive intelligence.

(LIST: What’s Next for Snowden: 10 Notorious Leakers and How They Fared)

On Sunday, Snowden revealed himself as the source of last week’s explosive Guardian and Washington Post stories. The articles revealed that the NSA had logs of every phone call being made to, from and within the U.S. as well as their duration, and that the NSA runs a program called PRISM which prowls the servers of major internet companies like AOL and Google for potential terrorist communications. Snowden, who said he was in Hong Kong seeking asylum from various countries, called himself a whistle blower and said he was hoping to start a national debate about America’s surveillance of its people.

Lawmakers almost universally expressed shock that 29-year-old Snowden, who dropped out of high school and never finished college, had been given a reported $122,000-a-year job with top-secret clearance with the government subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii. “I have a lot of questions that I would personally ask about this man,” says Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, “how he ended up with a security clearance and a job that pays somewhere between $120,000 and $200,000 a year.”

Chambliss suggested that not only does the vetting process–which has been in overdrive in recent years to overcome a decade-long post 9-11 backlog–need to be overhauled, but that regular check-ups should be done for those already cleared in case, as it appears happened with Snowden, employees become disaffected. “Like those who get disability claims, there’s got to be a period of time where you go back and look at individuals and look at if top secret clearance is still appropriate for them,” Chambliss said. “If people are getting dissatisfied, we have to know it and deal with it so they don’t go outside and vent their frustrations to the press.”

(MORE: NSA Leak Supporters Push Obama To Pardon Snowden)

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the NSA should have an internal affairs unit, much as most police departments have in the U.S. “A unit whose job it is to watch the cops about being bribed, being corrupted, stepping out of their lane,” he said. “Where you have watchers watching the watchers.”

Attorneys who specialize in candidates for high-level government security clearance tend to agree. Greg Rinckey, managing partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC, proposed the need for internal “counterintelligence.” A body devoted to seeking out the soft spots of federal employees (“Can they be blackmailed? How might they become disillusioned?”) before they can gain access to reams of confidential information could prevent future leaks, he said. Hundreds of thousands of contractors like Snowden enjoy top-secret status and few choose his path, Rinckey added, but “everybody has a weakness.”

The biggest threat to U.S. intelligence these days isn’t so much Russian spies, Graham said, but disaffected young men like Snowden; Private Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking a trove of national security documents published by Wikileaks; and Aaron Swartz, the activist co-founder of social news site reddit who committed suicide after the government charged him with wire and computer fraudbrought him up on charges of wire and computer fraud for illegally downloading millions of documents. “I think that there’s a group of people, younger people who are not fighting the war, who are libertarians mostly, who feel like the government is the problem,” Graham said, “that those who are trained to defend us are a bigger threat than those who are trying to attack us.”

(MORE: Joe Klein: Why Civil-Liberties Freak-Out Is Harmful to U.S. Democracy)

Agreed Chambliss: “Obviously, there are some similarities between the leakers, that they’re from the same philosophical background that, I guess you could say, are libertarian… It’s going to be a challenge that the intelligence community to figure out how to defend against this. I don’t know that you always can.”

Graham said the best way to deal with such disaffected people is to make examples of them. “If somebody finally goes to jail for destroying our national security and weakening our national defenses, maybe the next 29-year-old who thinks that they’re going to be some cult figure will think twice,” Graham said. “If we can run [Snowden] down, it’s imperative that we catch him. I don’t care where he goes, I don’t care what we need to do, we need to bring this guy to justice for deterrence sake.” The Justice Department is reportedly looking into extraditing Snowden and into options for building a case against him.

But there were senators who refused to label Snowden a traitor. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent and self-described socialist, said focusing on Snowden missed the bigger picture. ”I do not believe that the American people want to have every phone call that they make tracked by the United States government, every website that they visit tracked by the United States government or the private sector—that is the debate that we have to have,” Sanders said. And Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican whose father, libertarian Ron Paul, received $250 from Snowden towards his 2012 president bid, said Snowden’s act was merely one of “conscientious objection.”

Not so, argued Chambliss, who says these programs have resulted directly in the thwarting of terrorist attacks on American soil, including the arrest in Denver of Najibullah Zazi for plotting to blow up the New York City subway. “There are other [thwarted attacks] that we are working on getting declassified and can talk about hopefully in the next several days,” Chambliss said. “This is major leak and what this young man has done, I can say with a fair amount of certainty, is going to cost someone their lives.”

A previous version of this article misidentified Dick Durbin as the #3 Democrat in the Senate; he ranks second.

With reporting by Andrew Katz

MORE: Last Seen in Hong Kong: Edward Snowden Slips Away

67 comments
AlwaysThinkHow
AlwaysThinkHow

Major correction needed.  The article claims that PRISM is "prowling" the servers of corporate network sites like Google, Facebook, Yahoo etc.

We do NOT know that to be a fact.  At this time, the companies have objected to that charge, yet they may not give specific details because they are forbidden by law from doing so.  Google has formally requested the DOJ allow them to provide more details to explain how the warrant process works to even allow the government to collect specific, targeted data.

If you actually read the leaked slide that talks about PRISM it is directed toward an analyst who gets some data that very likely may have only been obtained by a warrant.  There is nothing at all that even implies that the data set was obtained by prowling email or Facebook posts.

The media has hyped this misinformation to the point that even comedians are spreading this false meme.  Why can't we wait for the facts?  Or does our media think that by spreading this misinformation is the only way to force the hand of government and corporations to come forward with accurate, truthful information.

We need to have a discussion of privacy in the digital age but it must be done with facts and knowledge and not based upon "fear" that we are being monitored.


sacredh
sacredh

"Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, told TIME. “Obviously, General Alexander does not review or interview every applicant. But he is concerned about the process, about the use of contractors versus NSA employees."

This is something that really burns me up. Contractors are forced on us because the dipsh!ts in DC say that it will save the government time and money because "private industry can do it cheaper". That's completely untrue. Private contractors are in it for the MONEY. It's not their life-long careers that are on the line. It's ours. We've had so many jobs at our installations that were contracted out that we could have done ourselves and wanted to do ourselves. We did it right the first time because it was where we worked. If we didn't do it right the first time, we would have gotten hell and had to do it over. Private contractors just want to get it done and move on. It problems spring up...well hey, pay them to do a slipshod job again. 

jmac
jmac

Snowden speaks to South China Morning Post:  The US government "has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and {in China} for years."

"Snowden said that according to unverified documents seen by the Post, the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009. None of the documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems, he said ... Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland. "  

Hero?  No.

ahandout
ahandout

We must protect the government from the people.

paulejb
paulejb

Odd that this champion of freedom would flee to the most totalitarian nation on the planet. What exactly is the message that Snowden is trying to convey?

ertdfg
ertdfg

"Not so, argued Chambliss, who says these programs have resulted directly in the thwarting of terrorist attacks on American soil, including the arrest in Denver of Najibullah Zazi for plotting to blow up the New York City subway"

And if we implanted a Video/audio/GPS tracker in every US citizen and visitor we could stop even more crimes... a police state is always more secure after all...  if you're willing to go that far; which apparently Chambliss not only is willing, but even eager.

Is that supposed to make the disaffected libertarians feel better?

ertdfg
ertdfg

"'Graham said the best way to deal with such disaffected people is to make examples of them."

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Nothing will convince people the government can be trusted like jailing those who question it...


retiredvet
retiredvet

Don’t fear government malice. Fear its incompetence.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tweeted - "We now spend far more to protect ourselves from 2 pressure cookers than we once did against 7500 nukes. And failing."

Mickey_Dugan
Mickey_Dugan

What a laugh. Only through the discovery of Snowden's leak does Dianne Feinstein learn the super-state secret that even she's unaware that invasive private intelligence is being handled by third-parties, and for this discovery - the *Senate Intelligence Committee Chair* she actually knows less than a low-hire staffer from a 3rd-party hire - she condemns *him* as a traitor. She's answering her own authoritarian dog-whistle, and appearing utterly ignorant and stupid. The best you can say is she has a cheerleader in Joe Klein on her side.

Casual_Observer
Casual_Observer

"Graham said the best way to deal with such disaffected people is to make examples of them. “If somebody finally goes to jail for destroying our national security and weakening our national defenses, maybe the next 29-year-old who thinks that they’re going to be some cult figure will think twice,” Graham said."

It's funny that Mr. Graham didn't have the same reaction when massive banks were destroying our financial system.

destor23
destor23

I have a great idea that will absolutely, positively stop any leak of this nature from ever happening again.  The government should, wait for it... end its mass surveillance of the American public.  Where would Snowden be then, huh?

MrObvious
MrObvious

So is congress going to make sure that we only hire government workers to do this and cut out all the defense contractors?

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Where are the Senators and Congresspersons that are outraged over PRISM and other surveillance programs that violates the privacy rights of all Americans?  REPEAL FISA... REPEAL the Patriot Act!  

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

"And Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican whose father, libertarian Ron Paul, Snowden donated $250 for his 2012 president bid..."

Thanks, Jay, though one minor point needs fixed: Ron Paul and Rand Paul are NOT libertarians. You'll hear them talk good smack about civil liberties on this issue and drones, but what abortion rights? (Barry Goldwater had the classic libertarian position herre that this is a private matter for the government to stay out of.) Gay marriage? There's another whopper: from a real libertarian view, shouldn't the government stay out of telling people whom they marry and whom they can't? Which, of course, is what a TRUE libertarian like Gary Johnson professes.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

 founder of social news site reddit who committed suicide after the government brought him up on charges of wire and computer fraud for illegally downloading millions of documents. 

JNS, You need to educate yourself about this case before you write gross mischaracterizations such as this one. You'll be glad you did.

outsider
outsider

For her part, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, who has called Snowden a traitor, wants to know how so many contractors are given access to such sensitive information. “I’m very concerned that we have government contractors doing what are essentially governmental jobs and, I think, particularly with highly classified information,” Feinstein said. “Government people, who take an oath to keep that information secure, should be the ones” handling sensitive intelligence.



Shouldn't they have the same policy about military personnel? You know, use the army rather than mercenaries.. 

DerekHologram
DerekHologram

It is a total lie that only right-wing "libertarians" care about this. This is a major issue for the Left too.

TheOneRealJesse
TheOneRealJesse

How dumb is this. Another closed session to discuss the monitoring of private American citizens phone records... on a daily ongoing basis for years. The type of warrant that was granted for this flies in complete disregard of the laws in the Constitution. Every day our rights get trampled on in the name of "security" while our government asks us to "Trust them." I personally don't trust the government with a toothbrush, let alone all my call records, personal information or even my tax money. Power loves power, and information is power. There should be riots in the streets over this, yet alas the average American doesn't give a s*** about their privacy. Is this Change we can believe in? Obama is just as bad as any other president. While American is caught up in the Rep vs Dem fight the wool is being pulled right over our eyes. This is the DEATH OF LIBERTY.

PeterEdwardHarrington
PeterEdwardHarrington

The people harvesting this data, the system, the ideology - this is treason. Snowden is a brave man, and I can only hope there is a measured conversation and an eventual rollback of these powers which were neither debated nor granted by democratic process.

RayMilano
RayMilano

Pathetic article. Just a list of government talking points disguised as a real article. This journalist and Time magazine should take a cue from Glenn Greenwald, the real journalist that broke this story. That of course would really be asking for too much from the corporate press.

poliphobic
poliphobic

" revealed that the NSA had logs of every phone call and their duration, being made both to-and-from the U.S. and within the U.S.,"


I was under the impression that Mr. Obama had said that only we foreigners were being spied on, not Americans.

Enlighten me please ,someone .



retiredvet
retiredvet

What idiocy. What the American people want is transparency in what our government is doing. Not more watchers watching the watchers. It's nothing more than a double top secret feedback loop at this point.