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The Guardian revealed the identity of the source behind the recent NSA leak at his request over the weekend. Edward Snowden is a former CIA employee who most recently worked for contractor Booz Allen. The disclosure of Snowden’s identity is renewing questions about the growth of contractors within the government and whether they’re relied on too heavily in the field of national security. We consider the implications of this latest revelation.
- Donald Kettl Dean, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland; nonresident senior fellow, Brookings Institution
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we reconsider the effects of the sequester now that we're three months in. But first, a few days after The Guardian newspaper broke a story about the NSA's access to Verizon phone records, it revealed the identity of the man behind the leaks at his request.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEdward Snowden formerly worked as a tech assistant for the CIA, but it's likely he obtained the information he shared with the paper during his work as a government contractor, which has prompted renewed questions about the role outsourcing plays within our national security system. Here to help us figure out where the story fits into the big picture is Donald Kettl. Donald Kettl is dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Donald Kettl, good to see you.
MR. DONALD KETTLIt's good to see you too, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation. You can give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you make of Edward Snowden's decision to share information with The Guardian? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don Kettl, we know that contractors are a big part of how the federal government runs these days. Do you have a sense of how much of our national security work is being outsourced, so to speak?
KETTLYou know, it's one of the things that's hardest to get a handle on. There have been some suggestions and some studies that say that one out of every four people working for the intelligence community might be a contractor, which isn't surprising. It gives them a lot more flexibility, but it also says that a lot of the work that gets done in that kind of murky world of intelligence is being done by nongovernmental employees.
NNAMDIGiven his somewhat lackluster background, some people are questioning how Edward Snowden got a top-secret clearance to begin with. Do you think this leak is likely to prompt any kind of review of that whole process?
KETTLIt's going to prompt a review of almost everything here. I mean how much should we rely on contractors? What does it take to get a clearance? If we gum up the process too much for getting clearances too on top of that, we'll make it that much harder to hire anybody to do intelligence work.
KETTLI have students in fact who were interested in going into this field at one point, and they were told that the two things they need to do is, first, start the program and, second, on the day they start the program, start the process for a clearance because it can sometimes take as long to get the clearance as it takes to finish their two-year program.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think that the government has become too reliant on contractors? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. With such a large pool of people, over 800,000, carrying top-secret clearances, has this kind of leak to some extent become, well, part of the cost of doing business?
KETTLWell, in some ways it is because there are a lot of people who come into the government, come into the culture and believe that they need to take it on themselves to be able to set the world right if they don't agree with the way things are happening. But, of course, so far at least what happened seems to have been that what was happening in the NSA and elsewhere was according to the law.
KETTLWe'll investigate this and understand more as time goes forward, but this was something in the law that he disagreed with as opposed to a disclosure of violations of the law. And that makes this game a little bit different, puts him, as some has suggested, more in the category of Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon papers back in the 1970s. But the basic question is: What do we make of a guy who takes it to himself to decide what it is that we all need to know despite the fact that he agreed to a different set of rules when he joined the agency and later when he joined the contractor?
NNAMDIDoes the sheer number of people with clearances, as I mentioned, over 800,000, does that help explain why this administration has been so aggressive more than any administration prior to it in dealing with whistleblowers?
KETTLIt does for two reasons. I think one is that with so many people involved the opportunity for it, for leaks, for problems, for difficulties just magnify themselves, and the second is nobody wants to take the chance of having a 9/11 happen on their watch, which as we see members of Congress beginning to react as part of this as well, the reason why we have these electronic surveillance programs is that we are interested in trying to get to the bottom of what it is that people are talking about, who's talking to who about what, who may be communicating about bad things that they have in mind.
KETTLAnd electronic surveillance provides a way to get to the bottom of some of these things. It's irresistible not to look at some of these, but on the other hand, it does raise such difficult, huge questions of privacy.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is James in Takoma Park, Md. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESWell, one thing I like to understand is why this is such a big story. If you go on YouTube and search on NSA whistleblowers, there's videos on this that talked about this program a year ago. That's number one, and, number two, government agencies and the contractors are always trying to justify, you know, enriching themselves and building up their bureaucracies in the name of protecting us.
JAMESAnd I think it's just ridiculous. Even when the Russians told the government who the terrorists were, they couldn't catch them. And now, they've got to listen in and or capture metadata on every one of our calls and all of our Internet work, and that's supposed to be justified by them “protecting us.” (unintelligible) that you have on the show.
NNAMDIWell, James, not just justified, but, according to Don Kettl, apparently legal. How?
KETTLWell, it's legal because the law that was passed, especially after 9/11, gave federal authorities the right and the ability to be able to intercept communications, emails, phone calls and in particular what's been happening under the authorization of a special court is to be able to go out and identify who is making phone calls or sending emails to other people, especially outside the country.
KETTLSo if we identify a source of terrorism or a suspected source of terrorism, say, deep in Afghanistan, and we discover that there's somebody, say, deep in Texas or Washington who's making a disproportionate number of phone calls or sending a disproportionate number of emails that it tells the intelligence people maybe we ought to pay attention to what's going on there. When we hear often that there's been an increase in the amount of chatter that goes on in the intelligence world, this is really what they're talking about.
NNAMDIWell, you know, NPR's Tom Gjelten is reporting that while federal officials have condemned what Snowden says he did, following up on what our caller just said, that the general contours of these surveillance programs was already known.
KETTLFor -- especially the people in Congress and the intelligence community, their first and the most immediate reaction literally within hours was, well, there's nothing really new here. We know about that all along. We've been briefed on this all along. We approve of it, and, in fact, it's been used to try to frustrate some terrorist attacks. Many members of Congress, at least the ones who are paying attention, knew about this as well, and people who are following these issues closely knew that the feds were out there overseeing in the broad scale at least emails, phone calls and other things.
KETTLSo people following this closely for a long time, there's nothing new here. But what is new is so many people now are debating these questions of privacy and whether or not we should do as much as we're doing. So it's not really so much a question of whether the federal government is doing things that are illegal, it's whether the things that are illegal should be, and that's the next big piece of the debate that we're going to have for sure.
NNAMDIBooz Allen has acknowledged that Edward Snowden worked for them and called the news of his involvement in this story shocking and a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm. What kind of damage does a story like this do to a company like Booz Allen? I just heard a report on the news that their stock is dropping.
KETTLTheir stock has dropped today. It's not a good day to be holding shares in Booz Allen and anybody else is deep into the contracting intelligence business. Booz Allen is going to have to rebuild its trust with the federal government, but on the other hand, the federal government doesn't have much choice but to trust them because it is so heavily dependent on the world of outside contractors to get the work done. It is a tough dilemma.
NNAMDIAs any avid WAMU listener knows, Booz Allen Hamilton is a corporate supporter of WAMU 88.5. However, there's a strict firewall here at WAMU between our news and editorial departments and underwriting, so I had to say that. On to the telephones. Here now, Andrew in Alexandria, Va. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWYes. Thanks, Kojo. One of the things was why did he leak his name? And then he's speaking -- I think he went to Hong Kong, did he not, to try to get some kind of, you know, protection from, you know, any kind of prosecution? He wasn't prosecuted or charged with anything, but I just wondered a little bit if this – one of the questions we have to ask -- I mean, the big question has been, why does the government need all that information?
ANDREWThese folks, you know, today on the show, you're saying, you know, pretty much so, how do we deal with contractors? So I'm just wondering, what are the questions to ask and a little bit more about the detail, if we have any, about why he would leak his name and so forth.
NNAMDIWell, he requested that his name be revealed, and I am not aware of whether or not he's seeking asylum in Hong Kong. But certainly, there are already underway efforts to extradite him from Hong Kong.
KETTLYeah. The reporters are on his trail, and apparently, he's checked out of the hotel where he was staying, and there's speculation about whether or not he's still there. The extradition treaties, according to many reports, suggest that it would be relatively easy to be able to get him back to the U.S. So he's probably figured that out as well and is now trying to figure out what his next stop is.
KETTLThere were early suggestions that he might be looking for asylum somewhere, but the ultimate question about why it is that he wanted to have his name disclosed is one that we're going to have to ask him. But one suspects that he did this out of a sense of principle, and he wanted everybody to know was principled in his mind at least to be to do this.
NNAMDIWe're told that Iceland might be a long shot. That country's ambassador to China told the South China Morning News that Snowden would have to be physically inside Iceland in order to apply for such status. There are reports coming from ABC News about that. According to Icelandic law, a person can only submit such an application once he or she is in Iceland. So we'll have to see what happens with that. Thank you for your call. Here now is Rick in Patapsco, Md. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKThank you, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. My question or comment is that whenever there's a supposed injury here to the United States, the discussions are always framed from the perspective of the government's injury rather than from the perspective of the people's right to know, and we look negatively at the whistleblower. This is supposed to be a democracy in theory, and we're supposed to have the right to know what the government is doing. They're supposed to be doing the business of the people.
NNAMDIWell, I suspect, Rick, that the only reason there's controversy here at all is because so many people feel that the people have the right to know what's going on. There wouldn't be a major news story if there were not a substantial number of people who did not feel that people have a right to know. That's why we're talking about this right now.
KETTLWell, that's exactly right, Kojo, and I think it's a good point, Rick. Two issues that we have to try to break down -- the first is we ultimately have to find a way to balance out issues of privacy with the need for national security, and no president any longer ever would want to be in a position of having something bad happen on his or maybe ultimately her watch. And so that means that there's a lot of pressure for getting the information, but on the other hand, as you point out, there is absolutely a right to privacy.
KETTLAnd the basic question is how we try to balance out those two sets of moral issues. But underlying all this as well is the fact that who gets to decide who gets to disclose which information. Does that mean that anybody anywhere with any security information that he or she obtains in the course of their work for the government can disclose it if he or she thinks that it's in the national interest that he or she gets a chance to make their own decision.
KETTLObviously, if that happened, then the security system would be a lack of security completely, and we would not be able to function very long if any information at any point could be disclosed by anybody who felt that they ought to. So it's a matter of trying balance that out as well. And people who go to work for the intelligence community understand that full well and one of the things they're told right off the bat is that there has to be security, and they cannot simply disclose information that they think when they choose that it's in their interest or the country's interest on their own to do so.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rick. Finally, here's Lee in Rockville, Md. Lee, your turn.
LEEGood afternoon, Kojo. Interesting show. I've worked for one government agency or another for many, many years, and one thing that I've noticed at every government agency I've ever worked for is that the agency likes to pare down its staff. It's as if they say, well, you know, we used to have 1,000 people and now we're doing the same work with 800. Look how efficient we are. That's the -- one of the principal problems here. They -- they're not any more efficient. They're just contracting out for a lot of this. And the general public does not realize that. There's a...
LEEThere's a lot of very, very, very sensitive things that the contractors are doing. And...
NNAMDIOK. Allow me to have Don Kettl respond. We've got to move on.
KETTLYeah, it's absolutely clear. One of the things that we've tried to do to downsize government, while at the same time doing government's work, is to contract out so much of what we're doing, and we've actually fought the war in Afghanistan with, at times, two contractors for every soldier there. Just think about that -- two contractors for every soldier, which is just enormously complicated.
KETTLGo back to Abu Ghraib and the famous intelligence and questioning of people who were being held there, and there were contractors in some cases overseeing the work of members of the armed forces and how the questions were being asked. So we rely on contractors in this area to a remarkable and amazing degree, usually only cases like this that helped it bring that out. But it raises enormous questions about accountability and about the overall question of who's in charge of making sure that the public's looked out for.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be reconsidering the effects of the sequester now that we are three months in. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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