Transcript: CSIS panel on NSA’s PRISM surveillance program – Part Three

PART THREE: Partial transcript of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) panel on the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program on June 25, 2013. The panelists are: Bob Schieffer, CBS News; Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter; David Sanger, New York Times reporter; and James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
What do we make of the fact that, you know, once he does this and he goes to Hong Kong and now he’s in Russia and all of that. I mean, this is not your standard whistleblower, is it?

David Sanger, New York Times reporter:
Well, a lot of people who would argue he’s not a whistleblower at all. And whether or not you think he’s a whistleblower probably determines how you come down on the first question you asked about why the press publishes this, what kind of person he is, and so forth.

I think this is coming with an interesting context at a moment when there is a new President in China and the return of a previous President in Russia, both of whom had just met President Obama in separate summit meetings within the past week and a half, and both of whom showed a particular willingness to stand up and say “This is not my problem” and perhaps enjoy – in the case of the Russians – how much angst this was causing the United States.

In the case of the Chinese, I think they just wanted to get this problem off their plate. The prospect of a year or two years or however long the extradition process took, I think they believed – I know for some Chinese officials who expressed this to me – would be a fairly lengthy process that would erode the relationship at a time that Xi Jinping’s got other problems with the United States and that he wants to go deal with. And I think he decided that he would take a day or two of heat for letting him out of Hong Kong and then it will become someone else’s problem and that someone else turned out to be Vladimir Putin. [Laughter]

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Jim, do you think it might have been that they had gotten everything that they needed from him? I mean, is it possible? We read all these stories. We don’t know. I don’t have the expertise. Is it possible that they could have drained those four computers he had without him even knowing it?

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
I do think he’s overstating his position. I do know a little bit about the NTOC and he was not like at the center of it. So did he have access to some good data? Yes. Did this stuff come as a surprise to the Chinese or the Russians? No.

And so I think one of the problems he had was when he got there, he found that the stuff he was flogging while it attracted a lot of public interest was not really – it started a debate – it was not really a surprise to foreign intelligence services.

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
…He has said and given me good reason to believe that he’s in possession of material that could do extraordinary damage to collections by disclosing things that foreign targets don’t know. They know in principle but they don’t know in practice. And he’s not interested in tossing all that out into the public record. He’s interested in fostering the debate here.

There’s a lot of speculation about whether the Chinese drained his laptops or whether the Russians are doing so now. I wouldn’t give a lot of odds on that but if you gave me even money, I would make a very substantial bet against. I know more about the precautions he took and the planning he did anticipating that exact issue and I think it would be difficult to do without thumbscrews, and we haven’t seen any sign of that.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Do you all think he has done any harm to the national security?

David Sanger, New York Times reporter:
You know, it’s a very hard thing to judge from the outside. And of course, you will always get insiders saying that any revelation of any of these kinds of programs or techniques does harm.

And then you hear – Jim make the point that he did, which was most of this probably wasn’t a surprise to the Russians and the Chinese.

Well, the information was more of a surprise to the American people than it is to the Russians or the Chinese.

Or in the piece that I wrote about since the Sustex Virus had gotten out in 2010 and Iranians already had the code and they knew somebody had been attacking their systems and they didn’t think it was the Swiss.[Laughter]

Then the question is are these programs classified because you’re keeping adversaries from knowing about it or you’re keeping Americans from knowing about it. And that’s a very important base question to go answer.

When I looked over the documents that Bart published and that the Guardian published, for some of them, first question that came into my mind was “Why was this document classified at all?”

Let me give you an example. One of the most interesting that got published was one that we had written about but had not seen called Presidential Decision Directive #20 and it was signed by President Obama back last fall. And it was basically the decision directive that lays out the conditions under which the United States would make use of defensive cyber or offensive cyber and who’s supposed to go do that and so forth and so on. And each paragraph is marked either confidential or secret or top secret. The entire document was supposed to be declassified in 2037 – something like that.

I read through this and I said, “Gee, I’m almost certain when the documents were signed that there were declassified briefings for us of almost all of the major details.” And I went back over my notes and there were some interesting smaller things in the document but most of the big issues we had been briefed on. So I went back to the White House and said, “Can somebody here just give me the justification for why this document was classified?” And the answer I got back was in short “Because it was in the interest of the United States to classify it.” [Overlapping audio]

So, you know, many of these do raise a fundamental question, which is wouldn’t the government find itself in a less of a difficult position today if it had said to the world, “Yes, we have a central repository into which all phone call metadata is poured into it and we hold on for five years.”

Because any terrorist who went to the movies thinks that we can go back and trace a call in 20 seconds, right?

Why the presidential decision directive couldn’t have been published at which point it would have become a deterrent that would see that the President’s authorized the use of retaliatory cyber weapons at some point?

But no one really wants to engage in that debate inside the U.S. government or at least they don’t want to engage it publicly with all of us.

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Can I add something to all of that? One is that it should not open and close the conversation whether something would improve the public debate, and it shouldn’t also close the public conversation whether something might be damaging or actually could do some damage to national security as one could reasonably define it.

John F. Kennedy’s great speech is not that we’re willing to pay no price to the blessings of the liberty. Bear no burden. That’s not what he said. I mean, there’s tradeoffs between self-government and self-defense.

Constitution begins with, you know, six fundamental guiding principles about what we’re here for and one of them, the fourth one, is the secure the common defense. So there are other issues here and there are balances to be had. And sometimes they’re easy; sometimes they’re hard.

I don’t dismiss the security risks that are involved in having this debate and even when a country or a terrorist organization has good reasons to think that the United States could be listening. You could compare it to the elevator cameras that we all know are there everyday but we don’t all behave all the time as though we’d like to have our photographs in the elevator put on the Internet. You forget. You stop thinking about it. You stop worrying about it. And so, by calling attention, there’s a chance that you’re dissuading people from going there.

But it’s very clear that in the PRISM document that the description of this program which gets information from nine of the largest Silicon Valley communications providers and it’s clear – it’s explicit in the document and in the markings – the most highly-classified portion of the document was the listing of the nine companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and so on. That’s the number one secret in there.

And when I had conversations with government officials about what we were going to print and what we weren’t, I said, “If the harm you envision consists of private companies taking a reputational or market loss because the American people don’t like what they’re doing, that’s why we’re going to publish it.” I mean, that is a high reason – a very high stake – that would make you want to publish the information.

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