ACLU head: Snowden leaks did country ‘a service’

ASPEN — Edward Snowden “did this country a service” in revealing government mass-surveillance efforts that are now coming under public scrutiny, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.

“I will say I am personally grateful that we are now having the debate we should have had long ago,” Anthony Romero said during this week’s Aspen Security Forum, put on by the Aspen Institute.

That debate was taken up in earnest by a panel that focused on the tensions between security and liberty, and included Raj De, general counsel for the National Security Agency. Snowden, who worked for an NSA contractor, leaked word of the agency’s mass collection of telephone “metadata.”

De noted that the data consists of things such as numbers dialed, date and time of call and duration.

“There’s no names associated with the numbers that are submitted to the FBI and NSA,” he said.

The monitoring doesn’t include the locations where calls are made or the content, he added. De said the program allows aggregation of phone companies’ data in short order, versus trying to obtain it on an as-needed basis.

He added, “Today there’s no obligation for any of these companies to hold onto their data.” While they do it for business purposes, they could always stop doing so, he said.

De declined to say Thursday what action the NSA might be pursuing in connection with a court order that requires data disclosures by Verizon and expires today. But he added, “I think there will be something to say” today.

Romero noted that the Patriot Act standard on which the phone surveillance program is based requires relevance to security investigations.

“It defies the knowledge or the understanding of the word relevant when you’re collecting every single phone call,” he said.

He said the data being compiled “can give you a very full picture of what my day is like.”

Jane Harman, who while in Congress served on the House Intelligence Committee and then on the Homeland Security Committee, said she believes the amount of metadata being collected may be excessive, and it and other security-related data-collection provisions are due for review.

“Do I think that maybe now that there’s a much more public debate, Congress should narrow some of these provisions? Yes,” she said.

She predicted that Congress will tighten standards for going before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for search warrants.

“I think we need a national debate about this and we’re having one right now,” she said.


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