Harkin, Grassley react to leaks on NSA surveillance

To my knowledge, none of Iowa’s representatives in Congress has issued an official statement on the recent revelations about broad surveillance of phone and electronic communications by the National Security Agency. However, both Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley have commented to the media about the story. Notably, Harkin expressed concern about the scope of intelligence gathering and called for President Barack Obama to give better guidance. In contrast to his image as a supporter of whistle-blowers, Grassley has expressed more interest in prosecuting Edward Snowden (the source of the leaks) than in investigating the NSA’s activities. Details are after the jump.

On a related note, here is a must-read post for anyone comforted by the president’s comments last week (“nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about”). Sociology professor Kieran Healy pretends to be a security analyst for the King of England in 1772, a period of growing political unrest in the American Colonies. Using “metadata” analysis only–that is, looking at social connections with no information about the content of people’s conversations or writings–Healy was able to identify Paul Revere as a prime suspect in activities disloyal to the crown.

But I say again, if a mere scribe such as I-one who knows nearly nothing-can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.

Hat tip to Nathan Yau at Flowing Data.

Yesterday, NSA Director General Keith Alexander testified before members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and asserted that surveillance programs had prevented dozens of terror attacks. Speaking to Iowa reporters by conference call today, Harkin was unconvinced.

Harkin said he doesn’t know if the NSA activities are going beyond those allowed in the Patriot Act, which was passed (and later extended) in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I am just not going to accept the word of the head of the NSA, or the head of some of our intelligence agencies. I’ve had dealings in the past 30 years, in which I’ve seen our intelligence agencies manipulate and twist information to their own ends,” Harkin said.

The senator said he is troubled by the fact that during his four decades in federal office the trend is that “more and more and more things get stamped ‘classified.’ ”

“Because it is intelligence — quote, intelligence, end quote — they get shielded from public scrutiny. They get shielded, actually, from congressional security. And Congress just tends to just rubberstamp it,” Harkin said.

Harkin added,

“That’s one thing I just don’t accept on its face value,” Harkin says. “They say that, of course they’re going to say that because they’re covering their you-know-what. They’re going to say ‘We thwarted this, we thwarted that,’ well, how are you ever going to prove something like that? I’d really have to see more proof than just their word.” […]

“The government is going beyond its bounds, putting a kind of fear out there among people about who they can call and what they can say and is the government listening and will this be recorded?” Harkin says. “That has a real chilling affect and I don’t think it’s healthy.”

Harkin wants “in-depth” Senate hearings about the intelligence gathering and urged people not to rush to judge the leaker Snowden.

Harkin said he sees three serious problems: the government is classifying too much information, it’s granting too many people security clearance to access classified documents, and it’s intruding too much into people’s private lives.

When it comes to Edward Snowden, the former CIA worker who leaked details about the National Security Agency’s telephone and Internet data collection programs, people should “calm down” and not be too quick to judge him, Harkin said.

Snowden’s civil rights need to be protected, he said. […]

Harkin said he’s troubled by how much money is being spent on surveillance.

“It’s my firm belief that much of this is wasted bureaucratic spending and because it’s ‘intelligence,’ it gets shielded from public scrutiny,” he said.

Meanwhile, Grassley has no sympathy for Snowden’s actions.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), a Republican with a long history of championing whistle-blower protections, said Snowden “surely isn’t a hero” and should be prosecuted for what intelligence experts have said is one of the most serious leaks in U.S. history.

“I don’t know exactly the law and I don’t know the extent to which he violated whatever law is there, but he’s got to be prosecuted,” Grassley said.

Speaking to Iowa reporters by conference call on June 12, Grassley commented,

“It seems to me he did break the law, but I don’t know all the facts and the law that well. If he breaks the law, he’s got to be prosecuted,” Grassley said. “Secondly, is it a treasonous act in the informal way that you want to use treasonous? I think definitely.”

Grassley struck a more cautious tone earlier this week.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that determinations of the severity of Snowden’s potential criminal offenses should “be based entirely upon the damage to national security.” Grassley said he’d been previously briefed on the NSA’s surveillance of Internet communications and phone records.

“It’s the only reason he could be prosecuted,” said Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A New York Times editorial pointed out that Snowden’s actions almost certainly do not meet the criteria for a charge of “treason.”

Whatever his crimes – and he clearly committed some – Mr. Snowden did not commit treason, though the people who have long kept the secrets he revealed are now fulminating with rage.

If Mr. Snowden had really wanted to harm his country, he could have sold the classified documents he stole to a foreign power, say Russia or China or Iran or North Korea. But even that would not constitute treason, which only applies in cases of aiding an enemy with whom the United States is at war.

His harshest critics might argue that by exposing American intelligence practices, he gave aid and comfort to Al Qaeda and its allies, with whom the country remains in a military conflict, thanks to the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed after Sept. 11, 2001, and is in force now. It’s unlikely that Qaeda leaders did not already know or suspect surveillance before Mr. Snowden’s disclosures. But treason means more than that, too. In the landmark 1945 case Cramer v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that one had to provide aid and comfort and also “adhere” to an enemy to be guilty of treason.

“A citizen may take actions which do aid and comfort the enemy,” the court said, “making a speech critical of the government or opposing its measures, profiteering, striking in defense plants or essential work, and the hundred other things which impair our cohesion and diminish our strength – but if there is no adherence to the enemy in this, if there is no intent to betray, there is no treason.”

Clearly, Mr. Snowden did not join a terror cell, or express any hostility toward the United States, when he turned over documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post.[…]

Most likely, he will be charged with disclosure of classified information under the Espionage Act, which carries a possible 10-year jail term for each count. Mr. Snowden broke the agreement he made to keep these materials secret. He appeared forthright in confessing to the act and can use his testimony, should he be brought to trial, to make the case that he exposed a serious abuse of power (though, technically, he did not blow the whistle on fraud or criminal activity).

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