Recently U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita appeared on Stossel to defend the programs the National Security Agency uses to gather data on Americans and others. I wondered about these questions: If it’s true that the information leaked by Edward Snowden has harmed the security of the United States, how is it that this was able to happen? Aren’t there many thousands of people with knowledge and information similar to, or greater than, what Snowden had access to? Is the security of our country dependent on all of them keeping their secrets?
In a telephone conversation, Pompeo told me there are thousands of people who have access to classified material. Each one of these persons represents some risk.
How did the Snowden situation develop? We don’t yet know the answer, Pompeo said. It was a mistake, he said, for the NSA to permit Snowden to have access to, and be able to take from the facility, the breadth of information he has released. But Snowden did not leak actual intelligence data; only an informational presentation about the programs being used.
Snowden has harmed our security, and he may not be finished releasing information. Appearing on Stossel, Pompeo told the host that already Al-Qaeda is behaving differently. “They might well have suspected that some of this was going on. But they learned a couple things. They learned not only what was going on, but they’ve also learned the legal limits of these programs. Having shared that is very dangerous, and allows the enemy to have insights into the things we’re doing, to go catch the really bad guys — the terrorists who still want to kill us.”
Addressing privacy concerns, on Stossel Pompeo emphasized the “tremendous oversight” of intelligence services. Actual telephone calls are not being listened to. Further, the data that’s collected is not “mined” continuously, he said. It’s only for specific purposes, and then with FISA court approval, that the data is used.
An important distinction, Pompeo told me, is that it is data about telephone calls that is being collected, not the actual content of the calls. He emphasized the process and layers of oversight, by both agencies and courts. Even with a president and attorney general who have shown themselves not always worth of public trust, Pompeo says that the depth and scope of oversight gives him confidence that the risk of abuse is low.
Interestingly, the perception of the breadth of data that’s being collected may be overstated. In a June 18 hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Pompeo asked these questions of the Director of the NSA (video follows):
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Pompeo: Gen. Alexander, from the data under Section 215 that’s collected, can you figure out the location of the person who made a particular phone call?
General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency: Not beyond the area code.
Pompeo: Do you have any information about signal strength or tower direction? I’ve seen articles that talked about you having this information. I want to make sure for the record we’re got that right.
Alexander: We don’t have that in the database.