NSA whistleblower Kirk Wiebe & former CIA analyst Ray McGovern discuss the implications of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s assessment, considering report commissioned by Congress
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
An independent government advisory board released a report Thursday calling the NSA’s bulk phone data collection program, or Section 215, both illegal and ineffective. They also recommended that mass surveillance program be ended. The five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board voted three to two to endorse the sharp rebuke to President Obama. As you remember, the president gave a major speech last week, where he defended the programs but also promised to reform some of them.
Also on Thursday, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden took part in a live Twitter Q&A, and he addressed the panel’s findings. One participant asked Snowden, “Do you think that the Watchdog Report by Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board will have any impact at all?” Snowden responded, “I don’t see how Congress could ignore it, as it makes clear there is no reason at all to maintain the 215 program.”
Now joining us to get into all the details is our esteemed panel.
We have Ray McGovern. He’s a retired CIA officer. McGovern was employed under seven U.S. presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
We also have Kirk Wiebe. He’s a former NSA senior intelligence analyst and an NSA whistleblower who worked with the NSA for more than 32 years.
Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.
J. KIRK WIEBE, FMR. SENIOR INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, NSA: Thank you. Good to be with you, Jessica.
RAY MCGOVERN, EX-CIA ANALYST: Most welcome.
DESVARIEUX: So, Ray, let’s start off with you. Give us your reaction to this independent government panel’s sharp rebuke of the NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection program.
MCGOVERN: Well, your lead-in there quoting Ed Snowden is exactly right. As usual, he’s got it exactly on the ball here. That’s why whistleblowers keep us free.
This destroys the president’s argument that this bulk collection is, quote, useful and, quote, legal. This board, which is an independent board set up after the 9/11 Commission, has said it’s useless and it’s illegal and, hello, it should be abolished. Now, they’ve looked at it. It’s a 238-page report. This is the authoritative answer. And it sort of corroborates what the president’s own review panel said when it said zero–zero–terrorist events were prevented by this bulk collection. And the fact remains that all these charges to the contrary are proven, well, lies, actually.
DESVARIEUX: Kirk, I’m sure that you agree. Did you find anything surprising in the board’s findings?
WIEBE: No. I found the boards–I’ve only read the synopsis of the report. I haven’t actually read the 200 and some odd pages of it. I would like to do that. But based on what I’ve seen, it is absolutely spot on and it’s excellent. The only disappointing fact was that two of the members dissented. And that is a bit disconcerting to me, inasmuch as Bill Binney and I, who know this problem just about as well as anyone, had actually provided input to that board and showed them that it wasn’t necessary to bulk-collect data on innocent people in order to find bad people.
DESVARIEUX: We should also note that the White House disagreed with the board’s assessment of the program’s legality. And National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden had this to say about the board’s assessment. Quote, “Consistent with the recent holdings of the United States district courts for the Southern District of New York and Southern District of California, as well as the findings of 15 judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on 36 separate occasions over the past seven years, the administration believes that the program is lawful.” Ray, is the program lawful? And what about the constitutionality of it all?
MCGOVERN: Well, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution says, “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Now, probable cause, dragnet, vacuum cleaner surveillance, does that mean that we’re all probably criminals or all probably terrorists? I don’t think so. And the legal theories–you know, this reminds me of George Bush when he went out as president, his exit interview. They said, well, you approved waterboarding. How come? And what did he say? The lawyers told me it was okay. So you can always get a lawyer to tell you it’s okay.
And the two lawyers that dissented, guess what? They worked for Bush in the Department of Justice. So it’s just as likely as not that they knew of these rulings that said, well, sure, the Fourth Amendment, you know, you can put that over there for a while. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism, 9/11, 9/11, terrorism, terrorism.
And the odd thing–it’s a kind of humorous thing–is that one of the women lawyers that was in the Justice Department, is now on the panel, she said, you know, it’s very difficult. She said, we didn’t rule on the–we don’t say whether it’s legal or illegal, but just think of what will happen if we tell the counterintelligence or the counterterrorist people that they’ve been violating the law all along. That would be a terrible blow to morale. Well, that’s hardly a legal reason to keep the truth from people who are violating the Fourth Amendment still as we speak.
DESVARIEUX: And we should note that the president actually knew what this panel’s assessment was prior to making his speech last week. What’s your response to that, Kirk?
WIEBE: As I watch the reactions of the president, people like Feinstein and Rogers, the more I begin to entertain the idea that none of this is truly about national security in terms of worrying about the American people being attacked by another terrorist organization or something like that, the more it makes me suspicious that there’s something else at stake that people in positions of power value very much, and that’s inside information about people that they can use for their own purposes.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And do these findings at all validate NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden? What would be your take, Ray?
MCGOVERN: Well, of course they do. Without Snowden having revealed all these things, we would still be oblivious.
This is really J. Edgar Hoover on steroids.
And with respect to what Kirk just said, I would just underline that.
You know, it’s not really a case of the security services being out of control. It’s a case of the security services being in control and a president with a weak backbone bending to them. Otherwise, why would he continue a program known to be ineffectual, actually counterproductive? And why would he still claim it’s legal when he should know better? After all, he’s a constitutional lawyer.
DESVARIEUX: Kirk, I’ll let you have the final word.
WIEBE: We’re in a constitutional crisis. People need to understand that. This isn’t just a debate. We’re in a crisis. People need to make their voices heard if any of this bothers them. It isn’t whether you personally are doing anything wrong. You don’t get to decide that. The government does. The government has no business collecting all your information and storing it as if you will be guilty one day and they want to be in a position to find out about it.
DESVARIEUX: Alright, gentlemen. Very well said. Thank you so much for joining us.
MCGOVERN: Most welcome.
WIEBE: My pleasure. Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.