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Former National Intelligence Director: Leaked Details Help Enemies Duck Scrutiny

June 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The former National Intelligence director says the government needs to take some of the mystery out of U.S. intelligence programs, but not secret aspects of how they work. Judy Woodruff talks to retired Adm. Dennis Blair about implications of NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revealing the existence of surveillance programs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we turn to retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who was the director of national intelligence in 2009 and 2010. In that position, he oversaw the entire intelligence community, including the NSA.

Adm. Blair, welcome to the NewsHour.

Let me first ask you about this question. How could a 29-year-old technical assistant who says he didn’t have a high school diploma, only worked for a few years for a private contractor, have access to this kind of information?

RET. ADM. DENNIS BLAIR, Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence: Well, I haven’t read everything that this young man has talked about or put out, Judy.

But just listening to parts of it, he clearly didn’t have the full picture of these programs that are run by the intelligence agencies. And so he reacted to the little piece that he knew, and he took a very dangerous action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying you believe he’s embellishing what he knows?

DENNIS BLAIR: Yes. I think he — it sounds like he has an overinflated idea of the power that he had as a low-level employee. He didn’t understand all the checks and balances or the intent of the program.

And he is making some pretty wild, wild statements. And, by the way, they are — it’s — he’s violating laws to talk about these programs. So I don’t think he’s a terribly credible — terribly credible witness here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, if he didn’t see that much, then how much damage is done by his releasing, revealing these?

DENNIS BLAIR: I think the single point in all of this that I agree with, Judy, is that the — we need to take some of the mystery, but not the secrecy, out of the intelligence programs that we use to protect Americans.

Our whole system is set up on foreign intelligence agencies, gather information from foreigners, not from Americans, overseas. Our domestic security agencies, the FBI, state and local police, all work in the United States on threats to Americans.

The problem is the terrorist groups don’t recognize this fine distinction. And they send communications back and forth to Americans, to people in the United States. And so the whole elaborate procedure that we have set up is to keep the foreign intelligence agencies on the side of gathering information against foreigners, and only gather information about Americans under a court order, the equivalent of a warrant that was talked about earlier.

And it’s this back-and-forth of trying to protect the rights of Americans while yet making information available to the domestic law enforcement services that will help them to protect Americans that all of these systems are set up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds like, in so doing, what the intelligence agencies have is access to millions, if not billions of telephone/Internet communications from people who are — who have nothing to do with terrorism.

DENNIS BLAIR: No, I think that’s a misconception, Judy. They don’t.

They have access only to information which they have convinced a court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that has probable value. It’s a probable cause sort of a justification. At that point — and let’s take an example.

A foreign terrorist suspect makes a phone call to a number in the United States, and the National Security Agency happens to pick up the foreign end of that conversation. In order to know who that call was made to, when it was taking place, the location, the National Security Agency has to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, get permission to search the databases of — that are collected by the communications companies for that number, find out the number, find out who owns that number.

It is then at that point turned over to the FBI for them to investigate. So the only numbers that the NSA — the only numbers of Americans that the NSA actually gains information about are those which are linked to suspicious activity gathered overseas and under court order.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard Sen. Rand Paul say that this is unconstitutional, what’s going on. He said he doesn’t know of any law that authorizes all this data collection.

DENNIS BLAIR: Well, with due respect to the senator, I think he’s just flat wrong on that.

This is under a law that was passed by the Congress in its current form about 2007-2008. It goes through several branches of government. In addition to the intelligence agencies, the Department of Justice oversees it. The requests are then made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. There’s then follow-up, and there are reports to Congress routinely on this activity.

So I think it’s very constitutional. It involves all branches of the federal government. It’s designed to protect Americans, while protecting their civil liberties. So, I think it’s an extremely well-run and constitutional program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adm. Blair, what about another criticism we heard from Sen. Mark Udall, who said he doesn’t — that he has seen nothing that proves that this system works, that there’s nothing proven that it has actually disrupted a terrorist plot?

DENNIS BLAIR: Again, with due respect to the senator, that’s also flat — flat wrong.

There are several plots which were thwarted by the use of this — and I’m going to say this type of program. I don’t want to discuss individual — individual programs. But this system of overseas intelligence linked to an American phone number being turned over under court order to American law enforcement companies have thwarted multiple, multiple attacks. And I will just — I will just leave it at that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me come back to a question I asked you earlier, because I’m not sure I understood your answer.

If — if Edward Snowden doesn’t have access to as much information as it appears he may, then what is the damage that’s been done by this?

DENNIS BLAIR: Well, the damage in all of this is that, in discussing the general concepts of the programs, which, as I say, are fully authorized and supervised, if it’s done in an uncoordinated and in a freelance manner, individual pieces of how the programs are actually set up can be released, which then, of course, make it easier for our enemies to evade them and to mount their threats to Americans in different ways.

So I’m all for talking about the general principles of these programs. I’m all for examples which illustrate how they work. But when those who have been inside the programs talk about specific parts of them, it poses a danger, because it — the — our enemies use them to learn, and then come at us in new ways. And it costs us a lot more time, effort, trouble, and there are periods of danger until we can get back on top of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adm. Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence, we thank you very much for talking with us.

DENNIS BLAIR: You’re welcome, Judy.