Edward Snowden, the former contractor responsible for disclosures about the National Security Agency, continues to elude both U.S. authorities and reporters in a Moscow airport. Meanwhile, the federal government is considering ending its relationship with the private company that vetted Snowden:
Federal investigators have told lawmakers they have evidence that USIS, the contractor that screened Edward Snowden for his top-secret clearance, repeatedly misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks, according to people familiar with the matter.
The alleged transgressions are so serious that a federal watchdog indicated he plans to recommend that the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees most background checks, end ties with USIS unless it can show it is performing responsibly, the people said.
Cutting off USIS could present a major logistical quagmire for the nation’s already-jammed security clearance process. The federal government relies heavily on contractors to approve workers for some of its most sensitive jobs in defense and intelligence. Falls Church-based USIS is the largest single private provider for government background checks.
The inspector general of OPM, working with the Justice Department, is examining whether USIS failed to meet a contractual obligation that it would conduct reviews of all background checks the company performed on behalf of government agencies, the people familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation has not yet been resolved.
A document published this week provided more details of the history of U.S. surveillance since September 11, 2001:
The NSA immediately began cultivating an array of “private sector partners,” including telephone companies, Internet service providers and Web services, according to a top-secret report by the NSA inspector general’s office obtained by The Washington Post.
“Private sector partners began to send telephony and Internet content to NSA in October 2001. They began to send telephony and Internet metadata to NSA as early as November 2001,” the IG report said.
The 57-page document, a working draft dated March 24, 2009, offers a short history of one of the most sweeping domestic surveillance efforts in American history. It was first posted by the Guardian newspaper in England. . .
It depicts a program fashioned virtually from scratch in a time of crisis, by a handful of individuals, including Gen. Michael Hayden, the head of the NSA and Vice President Dick Cheney. Given the code name “Stellar Wind,” the PSP was a set of four surveillance programs that brought Americans and U.S. territory within the domain of the NSA for the first time in decades. The PSP, which initially operated outside the restrictions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was eventually put under full FISA court control by 2007.
The report also offers new fodder for critics of domestic spying about the proper limits on domestic intelligence. In recent interviews with The Post, some former senior NSA officials said they had misgivings at the time.
“It was not something that I felt we needed to do or should do,” said one former NSA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss top-secret matters. “I thought there was a way to do it, which was to put this under FBI control, using FBI authorities, and just let the FBI use our [NSA] tools. I was just thinking, what kind of precedent does this set?”
The head of the NSA, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, defended the agency’s activities at a conference on Thursday:
Speaking at conference in Baltimore, Alexander said that because of the surveillance programs, 42 terrorist plots were disrupted and 12 individuals were identified as having provided material support to terrorist groups. Of the 54 cases he referred to, Alexander said only 13 had a “homeland nexus” and the rest involved cases overseas. Alexander said 25 occurred in Europe, 11 in Asia and five in Africa.
Alexander said both the NSA’s ability to collect the communications of foreign targets overseas using U.S. Internet firms and the collection of Americans’ phone records had contributed separately to counterterrorism efforts.
“With these exceptional authorities came equally exceptional oversight by all three branches of the government,” said Alexander.
In the case of the collection of metadata on the phone use of Americans, Alexander said it is kept in “a virtual lockbox” which the NSA can access only if “we have reasonable, articulable suspicion.”
Meanwhile, Snowden’s father told an interviewer that he believed the United States could persuade his son to return and stand trial:
The father of fugitive Edward Snowden told NBC News that he believes his son would return to the United States if he was assured that he would not be jailed before trial or subjected to a gag order.
Lonnie Snowden told journalist Michael Isikoff that he has not spoken with his son — who is currently believed to be hiding in a Moscow airport to evade arrest by U.S. authorities — since April. . .
The portion of the interview that aired on the “Today” show Friday morning did not explain how the elder Snowden had developed his opinion as to the conditions under which his 30-year-old son might return home.
Lonnie Snowden sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. with his suggestions about how to get his son to return to this country, Isikoff reported. In the interview, he said he knew his son had broken the law but does not think he committed treason.
“He has betrayed his government, but I don’t believe that he’s betrayed the people of the United States,” Lonnie Snowden said.
“I love him. I would like to have the opportunity to communicate with him,” he added.
So far, the United States has failed to persuade foreign countries to extradite Snowden, as ordinary legal channels have proved inadequate.
For the first 12 days, the Obama administration’s effort to extradite government leaker Edward Snowden from Hong Kong was a by-the-book legal affair — overseen by the Justice Department and involving few if any diplomatic overtures, according to senior administration officials.
That legalistic approach has resulted in a political and public relations debacle. By the time U.S. officials had begun applying diplomatic pressure on Hong Kong and Chinese authorities last weekend, it was too late: Snowden had boarded a flight to Moscow in search of asylum.
The missteps have thrust the United States into a geopolitical confrontation that has embarrassed the Obama administration and strained relations with China, Russia and other countries.
Ezra Klein discusses the tension between democratic principles and intelligence operations:
In a democracy, after all, power is exercised with the consent of the people. If the people don’t know about the powers being exercised, they can’t offer consent. But if they do know about the powers being exercised, those powers, almost by definition, are no longer covert.
You see the problem.
The way the United States has traditionally solved this problem is to wrap such efforts in a tight system of checks and balances. Even the most secretive programs require authorization and oversight from the courts and the Congress. The truly scary breaches have come when the executive branch tries to slip those bonds, as when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized wiretaps that both Congress and the Supreme Court had outlawed, or when President Richard Nixon used the intelligence services to carry out political vendettas. . .
“We have all these examples where the system of checks and balances was violated,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “I don’t think we’ve had evidence yet that what the administration has done is in that category.”
But few seem comforted by the checks and balances wrapped around the NSA’s activities. A recent Post/ABC News poll shows that 58 percent support the NSA’s intelligence gathering. But 65 percent support Congress holding public hearings on the program. And 48 percent — a plurality — oppose charging Edward Snowden with a crime for revealing the programs. The American people, in other words, support the NSA’s secret programs — they just don’t like the secret part.
For more on Snowden and the National Security Agency, continue reading here.