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MSNBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript: National Security Agency

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GREGORY: The hot debate this week, as you know: the future of U.S. spying programs. A presidential task force is now recommending sweeping changes to the way the National Security Agency gathers intel-- intelligence. President Obama says he'll decide on any reforms he's for next month. I'm joined now by two outspoken voices on the issue, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, of course; and Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. He's on the Homeland Security Committee. Gentlemen, welcome back.

REP. PETER KING (R-NY, Homeland Security Committee): Thank you.

GREGORY: You are on opposite sides of this and I'm fascinated by this topic. So here was Edward Snowden writing an open letter to the Brazilian people published in São Paulo. He writes, "Six months ago, I revealed that the NSA wanted to listen to the whole world. Now the whole world is listening back and speaking out, too. And the NSA doesn't like what it's hearing. The culture of indiscriminate worldwide surveillance, exposed to public debates and real investigations on every continent, is collapsing." Congressman King, is it collapsing?

REP. PETER KING (R-NY/Homeland Security Committee): First of all, I think Edward Snowden, a defector and a traitor. And the fact is there is no agency that is more monitored and more watched than the NSA. It's monitored by the courts, by the Justice Department. It's monitored by the intelligence committees in the Senate and the House. I think it's absolutely indispensable to our national security. The president said it's essential. The president said…

GREGORY: But is it collapsing?

REP. KING: …there have been no abuses.

GREGORY: And first of all, if that may be true, what you're saying in terms of oversight, but the American people had no idea what it was doing. Now you could think that's a good thing, but there was no real debate about this.

REP. KING: I don't think everyone has to know what a spy agency is doing. By their nature, a spy agency, it's kept secret. That's the purpose of it.

GREGORY: But is it collapsing? Is Snowden right about the fact that this is collapsing? Is it going to exist in the future the way it exists now?

REP. KING: If it doesn't, it's going to be calamitous for the country. We need the NSA to remain. I-- as I said, there were no abuses by the NSA, the president has said that. This is all to me a debate generated by the hysteria caused by Edward Snowden, and why we're listening to him is beyond me.

GREGORY: Senator Leahy, my sister-in-law from Kentucky is here. We've debated this topic. And she says, David, you talk about the founding fathers and the principles of freedom, that they're the basis of the country; but that's not where the country is. The country wants what Peter King wants, which is these programs to exist.
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SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT/Chair, Judiciary Committee): I think we ought to listen what the founding fathers said. That's what kept us strong as a country for over 200 years. I think the founding fathers would be astounded to see what NSA and others are doing. You know, it's not Snowden. In a way, he's irrelevant on this. It's a question of how well this has been looked at and how much the American public knows about it. I was heartened by the New York Times editorial today, which strongly endorses a legislation Congressman Sensen Brenner, a Republican, and I have introduced to reform what the NSA is doing. And the president's panel on this, a very good panel, recommends the same thing.

GREGORY: Okay, but the panel wants to allow the bulk collection of our metadata, that digital thumbprints…

SEN. LEAHY: But with controls.

GREGORY: With some controls.

SEN. LEAHY: With controls.

GREGORY: So that's what you support. So basically, the government shouldn't be able to stockpile it, in your view, a third party shouldn't have at it?

SEN. LEAHY: Well, then-- we're going to-- the first public exposure to what the panel has said is going to be before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a couple of weeks. And we're going to go into that at great length. But there have been problems, and one of the reasons so many of the big companies-- Yahoo!, Google and so on-- are concerned about this is the-- it gets them in crosshairs. And the other thing that bothers me greatly, we talk about what a great job they're doing. They did such a poor job, the NSA, that a subcontractor was able to steal all their secrets. And today, after spending a millions of dollars, they still don't know what was stolen.

GREGORY: What is if the president does not accept the panel's recommendations? Which again, the highlights are that you can collect all the data; but the government shouldn't be able to stockpile it, a third party has access to it. And you only get to query it, as they say, if you have a court order. That's one-- one big piece of it.

SEN. LEAHY: We're going to be a lot better off if the president and the Congress can work together, if we can stop having-- some in Congress will rubber stamp whatever the NSA does. And at the same time, those who say the NSA-- we don't need a spy agency, of course we need…

GREGORY: Right.

SEN. LEAHY: …spy agency. But let's have it accountable to the American public.
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GREGORY: Why can't you, Congressman King, take a look at these programs and rein in aspects of it? What is the proof-- I've heard argument-- what is the proof that absent the government being able to stockpile this metadata, that you cannot get this information and prevent an attack?

REP. KING: First of all, David, what do we rein in? There has not been one abuse cited. And the president said that himself…

GREGORY: Right.

REP. KING: …there were no abuses by the NSA. So we're talking about something that doesn't exist. And as far as allowing the private companies to keep the metadata, as opposed to the government, it's still being retained. And it's-- and what it does is it slows it down if the government needs that--

GREGORY: But are there conditions where abuse could occur? I mean, look-- I realize we're not living in our revolutionary past…

REP. KING: David, the abuse is anywhere.

GREGORY: …but that is the purpose of our founders, which is to make sure you don't put government in a position to abuse authority, and they are in that position, are they not?

REP. KING: But they have not done it, because they're monitored by the courts, they're monitored by the Justice Department. Every time you give a police officer a gun, he can abuse his authority. But the fact is, we don't disarm our police, we should not be disarming the NSA. And I wish the president would step forward and defend the NSA. What he says is, he says there's no abuse, the intelligence is absolutely necessary. But then he says, we have to reform it. What does he want to reform if it's working? I wish he could say that. He having it both ways.

SEN. LEAHY: Well, I think…

GREGORY: Senator, what if-- what if the president says, look, I'm-- I'll put some safeguards on the metadata program. We'll still-- the program stays going. And maybe we'll dial back some of this foreign surveillance. Is that a compromise you see in the offering?

SEN. LEAHY: That's why we're going to have the hearings. And the thing I say is about standing up for them. I'd also point out these are the people that had all the-- the intelligence of the United States stolen by a subcontractor; and today, millions of dollars later, they still don't know what was stolen. That doesn't give me a huge amount of confidence. We can make them better. We will make them better. But the idea that we must do exactly what they want or we're not safe is not…

REP. KING: We don't do that. But we don't do that.

(Cross talk)

GREGORY: But why doesn't Congress demonstrate the courage to pull back the power that's given to the president…

SEN. LEAHY: Well, this is why we…

GREGORY: …and that was given to him after-- these programs have been re-upped time after time by the Congress.

SEN. LEAHY: We have tried. We have tried. In fact, I joined with a very conservative Republican, Dick Armey, to put sunset provisions in some of the Patriot Act. And that has required the committees to look at it. We can do it.

REP. KING: David, there has not been one abuse cited. I live in New York. I lost about 150 friends, neighbors and constituents on September 11. If the NSA had had this metadata in 2001, that attack probably wouldn't have happened. They would have spotted that call in San Diego. Secondly, I live in New York, and knew the NSA would stop these (Unintelligible) bombing of the New York City subway system, which would have killed four or five hundred people. In fact, there's no one-- no one has come up with one abuse. And you're saying rein in-- what do we rein in? A system that works? Let's not unilaterally surrender.

GREGORY: All right.

REP. KING: And let the president come forward and defend a system that works.

SEN. LEAHY: Of course. Of course, there are reviews that take just the opposite position on that…

GREGORY: Right.

SEN. LEAHY: …who say that the information was there before 9/11 and it was not acted on.

GREGORY: All right. I'm going to-- the debate will continue…

REP. KING: They didn't have the power to do it. They didn't have the power to do it.

GREGORY: I'm going to leave that here today. Congressman King, thank you very much.

REP. KING: Thank you, David.

GREGORY: Senator Leahy, Merry Christmas to both of you.

SEN. LEAHY: Thank you. Merry Christmas to you. And to you, Peter.

REP. KING: Thank you, Pat.

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