Earlier this month, a government contractor by the name of Edward Snowden made some pretty shocking claims in an article printed by The Guardian regarding surveillance programs conducted by the United States. A lot of what he "revealed" was inaccurate or incomplete -- leading many to have the wrong idea.
Snowden revealed the existence of two programs being conducted by the American government in their fight against terrorism. The first is a metadata collection program. This program allows the federal government to get a Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) warrant to collect cell phone call records in order to find terrorists plotting against the United States. They can only pull the number called, the date and time of the call, and the duration of the call. No names are pulled and no content of the calls are available. Think of it this way: in order to find a needle in a haystack, you need to have the haystack. And that is what this does. The second program, referred to as PRISM, allows the government to target the internet communications of non-US persons located abroad for foreign intelligence purposes. Both of these programs are completely legal and constitutional and have strict oversight by Congress, agencies within the executive branch, and a federal court.
I want to start out by clarifying one of the most concerning claims Snowden made: that he, or any government agent or contractor, can listen in to Americans' phone calls whenever he wants. This is a lie that was unfortunately given legs when Congressman Jarod Nadler (D-NY) inaccurately told members of the press that the NSA told him they could listen in on Americans' phone calls without a warrant. He took the comment that the NSA could get "specific information" about a suspicious number as somehow meaning they could listen in on phone calls without warrants. I'm honestly not sure how he came to that conclusion, but he has since come out and retracted his statements. It is against the law for the NSA to record or monitor Americans' phone calls without getting a specific FISA warrant to do so, based on compelling evidence of a connection to terrorism. Plain and simple.
I completely understand how these recent revelations can be a bit unnerving. In the light of all of the scandals surrounding the Obama Administration, it is a lot to ask the American people to "trust us." But I think it is important to separate the revelation of the existence of these programs from the other scandals. This is not government employees or high-ranking Obama Administration officials misusing their authority to target their political enemies, to cover-up the assassination of an American ambassador, or to spy on members of the press. This is a legal program being conducted under several layers of scrutiny and oversight by dedicated members of our intelligence community that has proven very successful in saving Americans' lives.
The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, is working to declassify as much information as possible without causing even more damage than Edward Snowden has already caused. Hopefully, the revelation of the large number of plots these programs have thwarted will help the American people see how successful they have been. We already know of several situations where these programs foiled plots to kill Americans, including a plot to bomb the New York subway system and a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange. Some estimate that if successful, these plots could have killed thousands of Americans.
I know the leaker is trying to portray himself as a whistleblower or a hero. I want to be clear here: he is neither. A whistleblower is someone who goes through the proper channels to expose an illegal act. This man leaked classified information about a completely legal program to the news media in a haphazard and inaccurate way and then fled to China, where he continues to hide and leak classified information that damages our relationships with foreign countries and threatens the safety of Americans at home and abroad. A large amount of the information he has leaked has been misleading and inaccurate. His leaks have essentially given a road map to terrorists. Not only are terrorist groups altering the way they do business because of his leaks, but they now also know a lot more about what we can't do -- meaning they know our limitations and can exploit them.
His actions are criminal and, once captured, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He is most certainly not a hero. Heroes are the men and women in our armed forces who risk their lives every day to keep us safe. A hero is a firefighter who runs into a burning building to save others. A hero is not someone who leaks classified information, misleads the American people, and then flees to China.