The explosive revelations about the nation’s super-secret electronic intelligence gathering organization – so secret its acronym was nicknamed “No Such Agency” – has brought major push-back from the Obama administration.
Top officials are defending the National Security Agency’s data-gathering program involving billions of phone and Internet records, going so far as to declassify some information, including the existence of the PRISM program.
They’re rebutting some of the claims made in press reports about NSA activities even as some news sources are pulling back from what initially was asserted in some of those reports.
And in a move that may have major implications for national security and First Amendment rights – both of which in turn have the potential for political battles involving unusual alliances – the administration has begun criminal proceedings aimed at finding the leaker who blew the whistle in providing highly-classified information to the Washington Post and the British news publication the Guardian.
“For me, it is literally – not figuratively – literally gut-wrenching to see this happen because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell Saturday night.
“I think we all feel profoundly offended by that,” Mr. Clapper said, speaking of the leaker. “This is someone who, for whatever reason, has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country. And so I hope we’re able to track down whoever’s doing this, because it is extremely damaging to, and it affects the safety and security of this country.”
In a statement Saturday, Clapper spoke of “reckless disclosures,” “a rush to publish,” and “significant misimpressions that have resulted from the recent articles.”
"Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a 'playbook' of how to avoid detection,” he said.
The “crimes report” filed by the NSA now goes to the US Justice Department for investigation and possible prosecution. It comes at a time when the Justice Department – including its politically beleaguered Attorney General Eric Holder – has been under fire for what critics say is an overly-aggressive and inappropriate effort to ferret out leakers in cases involving the Associated Press and Fox News.
“They’ve really got immediate huge, major leaks that sort of put the AP story and the Fox and [James] Rosen things in a complete different light. Those look relatively minor, while these are huge,” Ted Boutrous, a media lawyer who has represented journalists caught up in leak inquiries, told Politico.com. “I have very little doubt that they will conduct an aggressive investigation.”
The Washington Post says its source was a “career intelligence officer” who was driven by “firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities … to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Glenn Greenwald – who broke the story in the Guardian and has been fighting government secrecy and intrusiveness in his opinion columns – rebutted intelligence director Clapper’s statements.
“The only thing we've endangered is the reputation of the people in power who are building this massive spying apparatus without any accountability who are trying to hide from the American people what it is that they are doing,” he said. “There is no national security harm from letting people know that they are collecting all phone records, that they are tapping into the Internet, that they are planning massive cyber attacks both foreign and – and even domestic.”
“These are things that the American people have a right to know,” Mr. Greenwald said. “The only thing being damaged is the credibility of political officials and they way they exercise power in the dark.”
Greenwald also said he may have more than one source feeding him secrets, which are likely to result in more revelations.
Meanwhile, Congress seems likely to add the latest reports about PRISM and other intelligence gathering to its efforts to balance national security with civil liberties related to personal privacy.
“My main concern is Americans don't know the extent to which they are being surveilled,” said US Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado, also speaking on ABC Sunday. “We hear this term metadata, which has to do with when you make calls, where you make calls to, who you're talking to. I think that's private information, and I think if the government is gathering that, the American people ought to know it, we ought to have a discussion about it, and frankly, I think we ought to reopen the Patriot Act and put some limits on the amount of data that the National Security Administration is collecting.”
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, US Senator Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said, "I'm going to be seeing if I can challenge this at the Supreme Court level.”
“I'm going to be asking the Internet providers and all of the phone companies; ask your customers to join me in a class-action lawsuit," Sen. Paul said.
On the other hand, both House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California stress the importance of tracking down and prosecuting any leakers.
“Taking a very sensitive classified program that targets foreign persons on foreign lands, and putting just enough out there to be dangerous, is dangerous to us,” Rep. Rogers said on ABC. “It's dangerous to our national security and it violates the oath of which that person took.”