By Sen. Dan Coats
Last week, Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, attempted to make a political point by leaking several documents that have seriously harmed America's ability to identify and respond to terrorist threats. As damaging as Mr. Snowden's disclosures are to public safety, I am also troubled by the decision of several members of Congress to mischaracterize this leak to advance their personal and political agendas.
I don't blame citizens for their concern about these secretive NSA programs. Personal privacy and civil liberties are important to all Americans and are protected by the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Obama administration--especially of late--has fueled people's distrust of government, which has made the reaction to Mr. Snowden's leak far worse.
The recent IRS scandal, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's contradictory statements regarding his role in the Justice Department's investigations into journalists, and the administration's inadequate and inconsistent responses to the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, are just a few examples of how the Obama administration has widened the trust deficit plaguing the country.
Though it is more difficult to quantify than the fiscal deficit, the trust deficit is just as profound, providing plenty of reason for many Americans to believe reports about the NSA's intrusiveness in their private lives. Fortunately, the reports are almost uniformly distorted or false.
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the American people demanded that the intelligence community be able to "connect the dots" to prevent terrorist attacks. Had the recently revealed programs been available to the NSA before 9/11, we likely could have identified some or all of the hijackers before they murdered thousands.
Twelve years later, the intelligence community is doing exactly what the American people asked for. The counterterrorism programs revealed last week have helped to thwart dozens of terrorist attacks. In one case, these programs identified a connection between al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan and Najibullah Zazi, an al Qaeda operative in Colorado. This enabled the FBI to stop Zazi and his associates from detonating explosives in the New York City subway system.
These programs represent some of the most effective means available to protect the country from terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. Leaking this information only degrades our ability to prevent attacks. It compromises our sources and gives terrorists critical information on how we monitor their activities.
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.
Sen. Coats is a Republican from Indiana and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.