Sen. Mike Johanns still wants more information about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program, even after assurances from the NSA Chief that the program has stopped more than 50 terrorist threats.
“I’m extremely, extremely uncomfortable and, therefore, very suspicious about everything here,” Johanns says.
The National Security Agency has disclosed that it collects data on cell phone calls, web surfing and email correspondence as part of its efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, both in this country and around the world.
The program drew extreme controversy once revealed by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old NSA contractor. Snowden has been seeking asylum from a number of countries since he made the revelations and the United States has sought to bring him home to face possible criminal charges.
NSA Chief Gen. Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee the program has thwarted more than 50 terrorist plots, including more than 10 that had American targets. One program, according to officials, targeted the New York Stock Exchange. Another in 2009 took aim at the New York City subway system.
“I understand the case he’s making: we’re saving lives, we’re protecting the homeland, we’re protecting other parts of the world from terrorist attacks,” Johanns says. “On the other hand, I want to be able to assure citizens as to what the program is about.”
The NSA program relies on a section of the Patriot Act that allows law enforcement to collect “business records,” which includes telephone records. The program also gathers “metadata,” such as calls made and taken, use of the Internet and emails sent and received without necessarily listening in on the call or reading the emails. NSA officials say the metadata allows intelligence analysts to decipher patterns. The program casts a wide net, giving the NSA nearly unlimited authority to gather such data.
Johanns says assurances given by authorities that the program is effective and has the supervision necessary to prevent abuse hasn’t been helped by disclosures that the FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance.
“I just think we need greater transparency and honesty about what we’re doing here, because this is extremely sensitive stuff,” Johanns says. “People don’t have a lot of confidence in the federal government and this abuses that little confidence that’s left.”
Johanns says he wants enough information to better explain the programs to Nebraskans.