Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other lawmakers said US intelligence agencies and defense contractors should adopt more stringent hiring procedures to prevent future disclosures of classified anti-terrorism programs. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
WASHINGTON — US intelligence agencies and defense contractors should adopt more stringent hiring procedures to prevent future disclosures of classified anti-terrorism programs, lawmakers said Tuesday.
A host of members called for Edward Snowden to be brought back to the United States and prosecuted for allegedly disclosing to reporters one of the federal government’s most secretive anti-terrorism efforts: an NSA effort to track email traffic that passes through the United States, sometimes involving American citizens.
Senior intelligence and NSA officials emerged from the first full day of Congress’ work week unscathed by the hubbub. But there are new reasons for private firms that do intel work for the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies — which grew exponentially after 9/11 — to worry.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said it is time to examine whether “contractors should be doing what are essential governmental jobs.
“I think the [responsibility for] highly classified information [lies] with the people who take that oath to keep that information secure,” Feinstein told reporters. “I think we need to have more scrutiny [of civilian contractors].”
Other lawmakers angrily panned US defense and intelligence community leaders for earlier this year possibly knowingly misleading, or lying to, Congress about that program, called PRISM.
National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, were accused of failing to give lawmakers “straight answers” about a sweeping NSA effort to track telephone and email traffic originating in the United States.
“One of the most important responsibilities a senator has is oversight of the intelligence community,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement. “This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”
Wyden referred to comments made to lawmakers earlier by Alexander and Clapper under veiled questioning about the program. After leaving a closed-door afternoon Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on PRISM, Alexander did not respond when asked by Defense News if he had misled lawmakers about the domestic-surveillance program.
Wyden and other lawmakers called for fresh hearings about PRISM, and about Clapper’s remarks.
Several, like Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declined to comment when asked if Alexander or Clapper should resign.
Feinstein sharply rejected the premise of a reporter’s question about whether she should move to have Clapper fired.
With Clapper’s job apparently safe, lawmakers focused on Snowden. Collins told reporters on Capitol Hill that US officials “should begin extradition proceedings” to return Snowden to American soil.
(To that end, Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., emerged from the afternoon briefing with Alexander and told reporters the NSA chief is unaware of Snowden’s current location.)
“[Snowden] didn’t have to take that job. He was paid for it. He voluntarily signed commitments to not disclose that information,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told reporters “To single-handedly rewrite US national security policy, I don’t think is appropriate. He should have to bear the consequences.”
Private-sector firms are feeling the heat. Industry sources were mum Tuesday, likely waiting to judge the political winds before commenting.
Collins and Wyden zeroed in on potential flaws in the hiring and security procedures used by US intelligence agencies, especially regarding who should have access to the nation’s most classified data.
“I’m just stunned that an individual who did not even have a high school diploma … and who is only age 29 has access to some of the most highly classified information in our government,” Collins said. “That is astonishing to me, and it shows problems with the vetting processes.
“Clearly, the rules are not being applied well or they need to be more strict,” she said.
Hawkish SASC member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others told reporters Congress should consider tightening the standards that the military, intel agencies and private security firms use to vet potential employees.
Wyden told reporters he has “long been concerned about the role of contractors in intelligence,” adding he intends to “push” for public hearings that would explore that and other PRISM-related issues. Wyden wants those hearings held “promptly.”
But Lexington Institute COO and industry consultant Loren Thompson said in a blog post that any “notion that outsourcing has led to these leaks is a canard — both leakers worked for the government during much of their careers.” (He was referring to Snowden and Bradley Manning, the US soldier who allegedly leaked reams of classified US data to Wikileaks.)
With most of the congressional focus on defense contractors and the alleged perpetrator, there were few signs of any large-scale movement to shutter the controversial domestic-spying program.
“I don’t think the program should be shut down,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Defense News.
Graham gave a full-throated endorsement to the program in a separate interview moments later.
“I want to gather intelligence in a lawful way, aggressively,” Graham said. “My fear is this program may have been compromised to a point of not being viable.
“And if that’s true, boy, we’ve lost a great tool to defend ourselves,” Graham added.
He said PRISM is focused solely on al-Qaida operatives or members of other such groups.
“I don’t think the average person realizes just what we’re up against,” Graham said, describing al-Qaida and similar groups as “dead set on attacking us again.”
If PRISM and other signals intelligence programs were shuttered, “it will be just a matter of time until they hit us again — not if,” Graham said.
Fellow SASC hawk Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., echoed other members of both chambers when she told reporters, “if we could be more open to the American people, I would support that.”
“But only if we’re not tipping off the bad guys,” Ayotte said. “That’s the balance.”
Nearly 10 senators, led by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., from both major parties introduced legislation Tuesday that would “put an end to the ‘secret law’ governing controversial government surveillance programs,” they said in a statement.
“This bill would require the attorney general to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” the senators said.
But the senators, which include civil liberties-minded libertarian Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and dovish liberal Democrat Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., did not call for PRISM’s end.
Even some liberal Democrats stopped short of calling for PRISM to be shut down.
In a tweet, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., called only for a “public debate” about the sweeping domestic surveillance program.
In a sign PRISM likely is here to stay, even President Barack Obama’s harshest critics endorsed the program on Tuesday.
“The president outlined last week that these were important national security programs to help keep Americans safe, and give us tools to fight the terrorist threat that we face,” House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a morning television interview.
“The president also outlined that there are appropriate safeguards in place” that are designed so “there’s no snooping … on Americans here at home.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski said Congress is “going to go through a whole series of hearings” on the PRISM disclosure.
“I think the American people have a right to know the purpose of the program,” Mikulski said a few hours before the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the program’s legality. “Is it constitutional? Is it legal? And is it desirable? And is it necessary?”
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.