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Snowden's Leaks Puts National Security Agency In A Bind


As Larry just said, the Privacy Board can now openly debate NSA surveillance programs, thanks to the revelations from Edward Snowden. And this is just one example of how Snowden's leaks have put the NSA in a bind. To talk more about this we're joined by NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks for coming in.


GREENE: So we're four weeks out now since these revelations from Edward Snowden. The NSA, I mean, one of the most secretive intelligence agencies in the world, how have they been dealing with this attention?

JOHNSON: You know, David, before all these leaks emerged, I don't think people would have been able to pick General Keith Alexander, who leads the NSA, out of a lineup.

GREENE: Not well known.


JOHNSON: Not at all, and now his image is out there. He's been called to testify on Capitol Hill multiple times. The press office of the NSA is getting more calls than it has in years. And all of this has been somewhat of a distraction for the agency. General Alexander, last month, sent a memo to employees asking them to try to stay focused on their jobs. But obviously that's really hard to do when you're in the headlines every single day - the leaks keep dripping out.

And NSA is also undergoing, as is the whole intelligence community, a review of how Edward Snowden got hired in the first place and how that background check system worked.

GREENE: Can you remind us what these documents that were leaked by Snowden say the NSA was doing on the surveillance front? What exact programs are we talking about?

JOHNSON: Sure, David. There were two main leaks. One involves Section 215 of the Patriot Act and that focuses on phone call record information, not the contents of the phone calls, David, but metadata - who the call was to, who it was from, how long it lasted. And most of this authority to collect this information is supposed to be in connection with or relevant to some kind of investigation.

We now know, though, that the government has been collecting that data in bulk for years, and that records are saved by the NSA for up to five years. These are American communications, not necessarily foreign communications, David. And we think that they have little if any nexus to terrorism.

Now, the second program Snowden disclosed is known as 702, after the part of the FISA Amendment Act Law...

GREENE: And FISA, we should say is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - the long name - and that the FISA court is the court that actually oversees the NSA.

JOHNSON: Yes, and under this foreign intelligence surveillance law the U.S. also has been collecting information about social media accounts. This part of the law is supposed to focus on overseas targets, but Edward Snowden revealed that data on U.S. people - who could be in communication with these overseas targets - is gathered on an incidental basis. The problem there, David, is incidental could mean hundreds of thousands of American communications.

GREENE: OK, Carrie. So we have these programs you're talking about. They had been overseen by a secret FISA court. Are we now going to see changes in the way those programs operate, and maybe changes in the oversight from this court.

JOHNSON: I think we're going to see a lot more debate for starters. These leaks have given new voice to critics on Capitol Hill. Some of them had been warning for years that there are secret interpretations of the law by this FISA court, which is secret in and of itself, and that the NSA and the FBI have been overstepping the authority that they should have under these laws.

Some critics like Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall, Democrats, are demanding the intelligence community clarify some misstatements that it's made about their authorities. And other lawmakers are really pressing the FISA court to release some of its opinions.

It's important, David, too that privacy groups have been on the march here. The ACLU has sued to try to challenge the constitutionality of the phone call record information program. And an the electronic privacy group has filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court, to try to challenge the FISA court's authority to approve that bulk data call collection, under that dragnet program the NSA has been using.

GREENE: So we might have to wait and see if there are legal changes. But what we can say certainly there's a lot of pressure from lawmakers and privacy groups on both the NSA and the FISA court that oversees it.

JOHNSON: That's right. And also worth noting is the fact that the FBI nominee, Jim Comey, has a hearing before the Senate today. And some lawmakers could demand some concessions or more information in connection with his nomination.

GREENE: We'll be keeping an eye on that. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks for coming in.

JOHNSON: Thank you.


GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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