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A Controversial Week For The NSA


This week, the National Security Agency fought back against criticism of it's operations following leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden that have revealed some of the scale of the agency's surveillance of Americans and people overseas, including heads of state of U.S. allies. NPR's Larry Abramson has been covering the story and joins us. Larry, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Bring us up to date. What happened this week that's pushed the scandal into the news again?

ABRAMSON: Well, the whole thing started with a House Intelligence Committee hearing and at that hearing National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander defended himself against allegations of overseas spying by saying that the U.S. is actually working with European allies and that they actually collected most of this information about the communications of Europeans.

And at that same hearing, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that he shouldn't be surprised about reports that the U.S. has been monitoring the phone calls of foreign leaders because, you know, this is like the first thing that he learned in spy school, is that you go to foreign leaders if you want to find out what those governments are going to be doing.

And finally, the intelligence community has also been starting to emphasize the fact that they don't determine who to listen to. It's the policymakers, the White House and ambassadors and the diplomatic community that determines what sort of information they need.

SIMON: At the same time there was news about another data collection program though.

ABRAMSON: Right. Well, so the Washington Post published documents indicating that the National Security Agency is intercepting data from Google and Yahoo as it moves between those company computers and the public Internet.

SIMON: But didn't we hear that months ago?

ABRAMSON: It seems like we did, but in fact what we heard back then was about a court-ordered program in which the companies were told to share information with the National Security Agency. This was a program that was basically off the books. The companies didn't know it was going on and the NSA went overseas to monitor their servers over there and grab the information without the company's consent.

SIMON: And now there's some moves in Congress, aren't there, to try and strengthen oversight at the NSA?

ABRAMSON: There are. We saw two bills drop this week. One of them would actually end the bulk collection of phone records by Americans that has outraged so many people. Another bill would allow the program to continue but with stricter oversight.

SIMON: Larry, is there some kind of clash of cultures here? I mean, by that I mean intelligence officials seem to say, look, we're only doing what we've been asked to do, even directed to do in an increasingly dangerous world.

ABRAMSON: There is. You know, that's what the intelligence community is saying, that we were told, especially after 9/11, to get more intelligence so that we're not surprised by these things. But I think that with every revelation that we read about in The Guardian or The Washington Post, people are just astounded at the capabilities of this organization,; how wealthy it is and how basically creative it is in going after as many different sources of information as they possibly can.

And so I think those surprises are going to continue because the NSA has told us that we actually have learned very little of the secrets that Edward Snowden ran off with.

SIMON: Let me bring you back to what seems to be the NSA's bottom line defense, which is this is what you've told us to do. You legislators are the problem. Why are you talking to us?

ABRAMSON: And a lot of legislators feel like they knew that they were getting intelligence, for example, about what the German government thought. They didn't know Chancellor Merkel's phone number was actually being listened to in order to get that information, including those such as Dianne Feinstein, who have defended the NSA, say that they were surprised by this, they didn't know that this was going on.

So once again we have this kind of circular logic of legislators saying we didn't know, and the NSA saying, well, we told you. And it raises questions about whether or not this surveillance apparatus that's been built up is simply too complicated and to far-reaching to be monitored by Congress.

SIMON: NPR's Larry Abramson. Thanks so much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.