Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration is undertaking a “holistic” effort to declassify more details about government surveillance activities to give the public a better picture of the programs.
“We’d like to do it sooner rather than later, but I also think that we want to do this in such a way that we tell a complete story,” Holder said in an interview in Washington today. “You want to have something that will be understandable to people that have access to this information, something that is not piecemeal, but really is holistic.”
Holder said there is “the need for more to be declassified, more to be discussed” about the government’s secret collection of telephone and Internet data under a law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
That includes more information about the two data collection programs revealed by Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton Corp. employee who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency. Snowden, who fled the country, is the subject of a criminal investigation into the disclosures.
One of those, called Prism, monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks. Under another, Verizon Communications Inc. was compelled to provide the NSA with customers’ telephone records.
U.S. lawmakers and civil-liberties groups have sought more information on the programs, which Snowden leaked to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the government for violating citizens’ privacy in its use of the programs with the group’s deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, calling the phone record collection “a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”
Holder, speaking in the conference room next to his office on the fifth floor of the Justice Department, said there is a lot of “misinformation” about the programs.
“I think we can help clear up by declassifying things, so I think that’s what we’re intending to do,” he said.
Holder, 62, said the U.S. “ought to consider” ways to declassify the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret U.S. court that reviews and authorizes surveillance requests for national security purposes.
President Barack Obama and intelligence officials have said the surveillance programs helped disrupt more than 50 terrorism threats in the U.S. and overseas. Obama said during a news conference June 19 in Germany that he wants to “find ways to declassify further some of these programs without completely compromising their effectiveness, sharing that information with the public.”
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills to require the declassification of the court’s opinions that authorized the data collection.
Senator Jeff Merkley, and Oregon Democrat and co-sponsor of Senate legislation to declassify “significant” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions, said in a June 19 letter to Obama that the NSA’s efforts “raised profound questions about the reach of the surveillance programs into the lives of every American.”
Holder said declassifying full opinions is delicate because many include details that “tend to reveal sources and methods.” Still, it will be “one of the parts” the administration looks at in an effort he said should be “as complete as it possibly can be.”
Obama held his first meeting today with a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board created to ensure government surveillance operations don’t trample on the privacy rights of Americans.
The five-member privacy board was created in 2004 and made an independent unit in 2007 after recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The board’s chairman, David Medine, a lawyer and former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission, was confirmed by the Senate last month.
The board is charged with reviewing actions by government agencies to protect citizens from terrorism, ensuring a balance between protection and civil liberties. It’s required to report to Congress on its activities at least twice a year.
The president also plans future meetings with “stakeholders” in the debate over government surveillance, White House press secretary Jay Carney said today, without giving specifics.
Obama’s first and only attorney general, Holder has been the country’s top law enforcement official since February of 2009. While he said he understood the skepticism about the programs, he said they are legal and conducted with the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and members of Congress. The data collection is “a cornerstone” of government efforts to keep the country safe from terrorism.
“We deal in an era now where the threats to the American people, to the homeland, are more acute perhaps than they’ve been in a great deal of time, so we have to protect the American people,” Holder said.
He said he spends between “50 and 60 percent” of his time working on national security issues. Each day starts with a classified briefing book to read during his motorcade to FBI headquarters -- a building across the street from the Justice Department. There, along with senior Justice Department and FBI officials, he goes through the “threat stream” of the prior 24 hours in a meeting that lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
He called the daily experience “sobering.”
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