Leaks of classified information to the news media by former NSA technician Edward Snowden did major damage to U.S. national security by undermining electronic collection programs that have helped protect America from terrorist attacks by radical Islamist groups.
Some Americans view Snowden as a hero because of claims that his disclosures indicate the American government has been violating their privacy by collecting their phone records and spying on their internet use. Based on my 25 years working in the intelligence field — including five years on the House Intelligence Committee staff — I can say without hesitation that this is not the case.
While this does not justify his decision to break the law and violate his security oath, there are several issues brought to light by Snowden that need to be addressed by Congress.
Some of Snowden’s disclosures indicated mistakes made by the NSA in surveillance programs involving cell phone and Internet data of Americans. None of these mistakes suggest the NSA was spying on Americans or intended to do anything illegal.
Nevertheless, steps must be taken to tighten these programs to reassure the American people that U.S. intelligence agencies are not violating their privacy.
Congress also must examine how to better protect intelligence whistle-blowers and encourage them to bring their concerns to the intelligence oversight committees and not the news media, by designating the intelligence oversight committees as ‘safe harbors’ for intelligence whistle-blowers.
Under current law and intelligence agency regulations, intelligence officers must go through their management before bringing concerns to Congress. Some go to the Hill on their own because they fear retaliation.
There are many reasons Congress must correct this situation. Making it known that intelligence officers and others who hold security clearances can bring classified concerns about misconduct, abuse and illegal activity to the intelligence committees confidentially and without endangering their careers, would create a safety valve to discourage anyone who claims to be an intelligence whistle-blower from damaging U.S national security by going to the press.
I also believe direct access to intelligence whistle-blowers is crucial for robust congressional oversight of intelligence. It is incomprehensible that Congress set up intelligence oversight committees, but intelligence officers can be fired or have their clearances revoked if they talk to these committees without permission.
Making the intelligence oversight committees safe harbors for intelligence whistle-blowers is not a new idea. Congress almost passed legislation to do this in 1998 that included this language:
“It is imperative that individuals with sensitive or classified information about misconduct within the Executive Branch have a 'safe harbor' for disclosure where they know the information will be properly safeguarded and thoroughly investigated.”
Language to make the congressional oversight committees safe harbors for intelligence whistle-blowers made it to a House-Senate conference committee on the 1999 intelligence authorization bill but was dropped due to a veto threat by the Clinton White House.
So how would Congress provide safe harbor to intelligence whistle-blowers? While I believe the House and Senate intelligence committees could set up procedures to protect classified information provided by whistle-blowers, the administration is certain to veto any legislation allowing an intelligence officer to go to Congress without informing his management or the inspector general.
The Senate could possibly force the White House to agree to such legislation by putting holds on key nominations.
Congress could set up safe harbor arrangements despite administration and intelligence community opposition by simply announcing that intelligence whistle-blowers will be given safe harbor and their identities will be protected.
Another option would be for the intelligence oversight committees to set up a classified hotline for intelligence whistle-blowers to call from their agencies.
Other steps should be taken before Congress attempts to provide safe harbor for intelligence whistle-blowers. The Snowden case suggests more should be done to screen government employees who hold security clearances, especially those with wide access such as computer systems technicians.
A related problem is that too many people in government have high level clearances and too many of them are contractors.
A government-wide education and counseling program should be initiated on the seriousness of the Snowden case and to explain legal avenues that would-be intelligence whistle-blowers can use to legally raise their concerns without harming U.S. national security. Ombudsmen and inspector generals in intelligence agencies need to be beefed up, made more independent and do more to reach out to employees.
Unfortunately, there will be more U.S. government employees with high-level security clearances like Edward Snowden who, for political reasons, to get attention for themselves, or due to personal vendettas, won’t be deterred from harming their country by leaking national security information to the press.
There also are genuine whistle-blowers afraid to follow the current rules. Legitimizing direct appeals to the congressional oversight committees by making these committees safe harbors for intelligence whistle-blowers could stop some of these people from going to the press, by enabling them to lodge confidential complaints with Congress requesting independent investigations and shielding them from retaliation.
This would satisfy any genuine whistle-blower that his or her complaint was being taken seriously and would be investigated. They would then have no legitimate reason to go to the press.
This is a small step in response to the Snowden fiasco that could help protect U.S. national security information and enhance congressional oversight of intelligence. It also is a step that is long overdue.
Fred Fleitz served for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is currently Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service. Read more reports from Fred Fleitz — Click Here Now.
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