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

PART TWO: 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
So, Jim, you have seen these kinds of situations before from both inside the government and from outside the government. What do you think of this story?

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
It’s true I’m the only one on the panel who’s been inside the bale, so-to-speak. Actually one of the things I’m wondering – I just went through a 5-year review. I think, “Why do I bother?” I can just wait ’til it’ll be in the Post or the Times or something… [Laughter]

And there’s no doubt that people in the community are a little depressed. So I feel a lot of empathy for them. But we will rebuild.

In this case, I kind of agree. I think more transparency would be a good thing. If they had given some more information on the program to begin with, it would have been easier to manage the public reaction.

But at the same time I’m all for more transparency, I think the program needs to continue. So the debate doesn’t lead us to one of these silly compromises where we set up a new advisory board or somehow put in additional constraints, I think that would be a mistake.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Let me just say ask you off the top here – some of the claims that Snowden has made – that he can listen in on any phone call and the President’s if he had the number. I have had people both on the record, on television, and off the record saying he vastly overstated his abilities. Do you think he did?

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
I love those television shows and movies where they show like an op center in the CIA, and the guy says, “Get me video on St. Peter’s square” and it immediately pops up. Come on, folks!

You know, of course, you can – technically it is possible to target someone and to get their phone calls but there are many, many legal constraints. You really have to work with these legal constraints to know how difficult it is, and it’s not that easy. There’s operational difficulties. There’s the legal issues. It’s not like the movies.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Well, do you think he overstated what his abilities were?

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
I think he was over-selling. I think he, you know, had a product and it looked for a while, at least in Hong Kong, like he was dangling, you know, “Come to me. Bring money and I’ll tell you the good stuff.” So I think he was over-selling.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Bart?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
I’m not his lawyer or his advocate, and I’m printing only what I think is true and that I can verify. I wouldn’t be so sure that he’s wrong about this. And what he’s right about for sure is that the legal constraints that Jim is talking about are either lines of code or policies and rules and regulations and supervisory chains and auditing trails, which given that the whole thing is taking place in secret can be changed at any time.

His principal point is that there has been build-up – without our knowledge – a remarkably powerful surveillance apparatus that is in fact touching every American household even though they are not – you don’t know – listening to all our calls. All – there are some. Or reading all our emails. And that the main constraints on it right now are what the code says, which can be changed, or what the policies are, which can be changed.

And what we do know is that when governments accumulate power over time, they find sort of one more reason why you might want to use this or, you know, adjust it on the spectrum just a little bit. And over time you tend to have a one-way valve in which there’s more use made of powerful tools for reasons that are stated in good faith and honestly believed but that change the boundaries.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Well, how can it be that someone can go to work in a situation like this, in a position like this, work there only three months and somehow get away with what he apparently – we know he got away with some stuff because you printed some of it. I mean, that does not seem right to me. It seems to me that’s not a good situation. How can that be?

James Lewis, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
Gee, I really want to defend to the guys at the floor here but it sounds like there was a little glitch. [Laughter]

…Just to move it a little bit aside, if you’re looking at simple things you could do to make your networks more secure, one of them is restrict administrator privileges. Because an administrator can pretty much do whatever they want. He was an administrator. And that was probably the mistake.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Is this basically he’s the IT guy at the office like we had a CBS. That when the computers break down, that’s the guy that comes in. He knows everybody’s passwords. [overlapping audio] I mean, is that basically what his job was?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Someone I know said – described him as the “help desk”.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
The help desk? Yeah?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Look, I mean, there’s been a lot of stuff that is out there that’s essentially trivializing him or his credentials or the importance of his job.

He worked at the Hawaii, sort of large sub-branch of the threat operations center run by the NSA. He was the administrator of a very substantial portion of that system and also in charge of defending it. So I mean, he was there to watch out for incoming cyber attacks, intrusions on the system, and he also administered a lot of the rules, regulations and firewalls that prevented inside people and out from getting to places where they weren’t supposed to. Of course, that gives you a lot of power to get into those places yourself.

Bob Schieffer, CBS News:
Is there any suggestion – and I know this is your source – but is there any suggestion that he took this job for the sole reason that he wanted – he had his mind made up about something that needed to be exposed and he went in there and got this job so he could do that?

Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter:
Well, he had spent a lot more years than this last one working in the intelligence community. I mean, he had clearly formed views that developed over time. He never told me that he took this job in order to carry out his plan but it’s looking more and more like that based on the external evidence.

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