As officials and the media try to figure out where National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is these days, details about the massive anti-terrorist surveillance program he revealed to a startled world are starting to be made public.
Those details may be sketchy at the moment – designed to reassure Americans that their e-mail and other personal data isn’t being scrutinized by over-eager intelligence analysts like Mr. Snowden – but that hasn’t stopped officials and lawmakers from offering strong opinions, as many of them did on the Sunday TV news shows.
"I'm deeply suspicious obviously because he went to China. That's not a place where you would ordinarily want to go if you are interested in freedom, liberty and so forth," Mr. Cheney said on Fox News Sunday. "It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this."
[Snowden says he went to Hong Kong because of its "commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”]
Speaking on NBC's “Meet the Press” Sunday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, senior Republican on the Select Intelligence Committee, said of Snowden, “If he's not a traitor, then he's pretty darn close to it.”
"As far as getting him back here, he needs to look an American jury in the eye and explain why he has disclosed sources and methods that are going to put American lives in danger," said Sen. Chambliss. “We know now that because of his disclosure that the terrorists, the bad guys around the world, are taking some different tactics, and they know a little bit more about how we're gathering information on them.”
Critics of what Snowden’s supporters call legitimate whistle-blowing on an intrusive and possibly illegal spy program got some ammunition for their side of the argument over the weekend.
Top US intelligence officials told the Associated Press Saturday that information gleaned from two controversial data-collection programs run by the NSA – collecting metadata on phone records and on Internet traffic – thwarted potential terrorist plots in the US and more than 20 other countries, and that gathered data is destroyed every five years.
The officials offered more detail on how the phone records program helped the NSA stop a 2009 al-Qaeda plot to blow up New York City subways, the AP reported. They say the program helped them track a co-conspirator of al-Qaeda operative Najibullah Zazi – though it's not clear why the FBI needed the NSA to investigate Zazi's phone records because the FBI would have had the authority to gather records of Zazi's phone calls after identifying him as a suspect, rather than relying on the sweeping collection program.
In any case, according to these officials, last year, fewer than 300 phone numbers were checked against the database of millions of US phone records gathered daily by the NSA in one of the programs, the intelligence officials said in arguing that the programs are far less sweeping than their detractors allege.
Rep. Mike Rogers, (R) Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, insists that the NSA’s surveillance programs are "legal" and "comport with the Constitution." On CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, he described some of how it works.
"We take the business records by a court order, and it's just phone numbers – no names, no addresses – put it in a lock box," Rep. Rogers said. "And if they get a foreign terrorist overseas that's dialing in to the United Sates, they take that phone number…. They plug it into this big pile, if you will, of just phone numbers – it's like a phonebook without any names and any addresses with it – to see if there's a connection, a foreign terrorist connection to the United States.
"When a number comes out of that lock box," Rogers said, "it's just a phone number – no names, no addresses. If they think that's relevant to their counterterrorism investigation, they give that to the FBI. Then the FBI has to go out and meet all the legal standards to even get whose phone number that is."
Such assurances are unlikely to satisfy critics of NSA spying, and not just because public information about the program is so limited.
“I don’t think collecting millions and millions of Americans’ phone calls is making us any safer,” Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado said on Meet the Press. “I think ultimately it is perhaps a violation of the Fourth Amendment” prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.