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To What Extent Did the Government Monitor Phone, Internet Activity After 9/11?

June 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
According to The Washington Post, the NSA cultivated relationships with phone companies and Internet providers to obtain domestic records after the 9/11 attacks. Ray Suarez talks to Barton Gellman, a journalist and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, for more on these NSA findings and an update on Edward Snowden.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, I’m joined by Barton Gellman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Gellman was one of the first journalists to make contact with Edward Snowden.

And, Bart Gellman, we now know there was an inspector general’s report inside the NSA about its activities after 9/11. What did it reveal?

BARTON GELLMAN, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation: It revealed an immense amount. It’s 50-some pages and it’s a — it’s a look back on the operation that was known inside the NSA as Stellar Wind and was actually we now know four separate programs.

I mean, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the Bush-era warrantless program, devoted a couple chapters to it in my book, and I could never crack the details. What exactly were they doing? And what exactly was it that led to a huge rebellion in the Justice Department in which Jim Comey, who’s now President Obama’s nominee for FBI director, and others threatened to resign?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, did those people go along with the programs for a time and then there was one that they just couldn’t go along with?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, the brief history of it is that it was invented largely by Vice President Dick Cheney and his lawyer David Addington, with the help of Mike Hayden, who was running the NSA.

The Justice Department had secret opinions written by John Yoo, who’s the same guy who wrote the torture opinions and some others that became quite controversial later. And when Jack Goldsmith became the head of the Office of Legal Council at the Justice Department by around the end of 2003, he started to become convinced there was a big problem with this program.

In March of 2004, Comey — sorry — Goldsmith and Jim Comey, who’s the deputy attorney general, convince Attorney General John Ashcroft that he has to say no to part of it. And then John Ashcroft becomes quite sick. Comey has the confrontation with Cheney and eventually with the president and nearly resigns.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now that you have had a chance to look over documents that reveal things that you didn’t know for years after trying to find them out, what would you say the tone of the inspector general’s conclusions were?

Was he a probist? Was he judgmental and casting harsh judgment on what had happened, or generally looking at it as something that happened in the wake of a terrible tragedy in the United States?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, this report is written really with an inside view.

It is not blaming anybody for anything. It is — it’s a kind of very dry and I would say sympathetic factual accounting of the sequence of events. What we know for the first time now — and I wrote about this almost two weeks ago in The Washington Post — is that there were four different programs.

There was the program that President Obama admitted, although he mischaracterized it, which was listening to some American phone calls. There was a similar program for reading e-mails and looking at other Internet content, and then there were two programs that went after records and logs of communications, call detail records that showed who was calling who and when and from what devices. And those were being collected on every single American, and the similar stuff for e-mails and Internet chats and voice-over Internet.

This isn’t listening in or reading the content. This is logging everyone who talks to everyone and when, including all Americans suspected of nothing and data-mining that.

RAY SUAREZ: At this point, is there any certainty about the whereabouts and the manner of life of Edward Snowden, where he is and what he’s up to?

BARTON GELLMAN: Yes, I sure wouldn’t say I’m certain about it. I don’t think there is.

He has disappeared into the bowels of the Moscow airport some days ago. It is said or implied that he’s still in the transit area and therefore not legally on Russian territory. He could be anywhere. I don’t think that the Russian government is being especially forthcoming. We don’t know what the issues are, diplomatic, legal or otherwise, and he seems to be in almost a kind of twilight zone right now.

RAY SUAREZ: What about his eventual fate? His father was hinting that there are terms under which his son would surrender, while Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, seemed kind of uncertain about whether Snowden was headed there.

BARTON GELLMAN: Yes, I have no idea sort of whether his father is speaking for his son, in the sense of whether his son has communicating with his father. And I don’t know how exactly to read the Ecuadorian president.

Ecuador has never stated flatly that it would give asylum to Edward Snowden. He had reasons that he was heading there, and I think that the — his WikiLeaks escorts believed that they had a deal. I did detect a certain amount more hedging in the public statement of the Ecuadorian president than I had before, but I don’t know what to make of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it possible that the Senate and the senators who’ve asked for more answers from James Clapper are going to find out more from the director of national intelligence than they would have known to ask if not for these leaks?

BARTON GELLMAN: Well, it is just an undeniable fact that many members of Congress are learning things that they didn’t know to ask until Snowden released into the public documents describing secret programs that the Obama administration wanted to keep secret.

We have — we have had a national debate that was enabled only because of him, and that includes most members of Congress. I believe what’s happening here in the current request is that members of the Senate are asking for public accounting of things that they do know in a classified sense and that they do not believe should stay classified. For example, you had …

RAY SUAREZ: Barton Gellman — well, go ahead. Go ahead. Finish your thought.


I was just going say — I was just going say about — Ron Wyden and Sen. Udall as well asked Clapper to correct a public statement because they knew it was false based on classified information, but they couldn’t cure it themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Barton Gellman from The Century Foundation, thanks for joining us.