On Eve Of Obama's Recommendations, Intel Panel Member Talks NSA
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
It's been more than seven months now since Edward Snowden shared top-secret NSA documents with the media and the world. Since then, a debate has raged about how the U.S. gathers intelligence and whether it's been invading Americans' privacy, for instance, by collecting records of their phone calls. Well, tomorrow, President Obama will officially weigh in with changes he'll make to the way the NSA does business.
And some of those changes may come from a report released last month by a blue-ribbon panel created by the president. To help set the stage for tomorrow's announcement, we're joined by Richard Clarke. He's one of the five members on that presidential panel and a longtime counterterrorism and cyber security expert. Welcome to the program.
RICHARD CLARKE: Good to be with you again.
CORNISH: So the task force actually issued some 46 recommendations. Now, it's a long list, but I was hoping you might be able to explain the two you consider most important.
CLARKE: Well, I think the two are the so-called section 215 program, in which the government has acquired every record of every phone call made in the United States and put it in government storage facilities and can then look at that to and from information.
CORNISH: So it's not just the collecting. It's the collecting and holding on to it, building a database.
CLARKE: Collecting, holding on to it and looking at it without any outside review. That's the first one. The second one is what's called a national security letter under which the FBI can, without any outside supervision, issue a subpoena and go and get records from phone companies, Internet companies and banks only on the grounds that it's interesting to them, only on the grounds that it's relevant to an investigation. We think both of those search requirements should have search warrants, court orders and outside review.
CORNISH: Now, I want to talk about one of those in particular, this recommendation that phone companies or some third party instead store those phone logs, those records that we discussed that the NSA currently keeps for itself. But The Washington Post spoke earlier this week with one phone company executive who said of the NSA: If they call us at 3:00 in the morning and say we've got a big issue and we need something in an hour, we couldn't do that. But if they say give it to us in the next two weeks, we could probably do that. Now, what do you say an analyst at the NSA who's arguing, I don't have two weeks?
CLARKE: Well, the phone companies are putting up a lot of red herrings because the phone companies don't want to do anything other than what they're already doing. We know and the phone companies do, too, in truth, that it's technologically possible to allow a direct feed into their databases and to acquire the information without waking anybody up at 3:00 in the morning and to acquire that information immediately. It's sitting in phone company databases today.
CORNISH: Richard Clarke, this report also found that the collection of phone records had no impact on preventing acts of terrorism. If so, why collect the metadata at all? There are obviously several members of Congress who say we should end this program altogether.
CLARKE: Well, I think, Audie, there's a difference between the efficacy of the program - does it work, has it worked in the past - and the appropriateness of the program. We really made our recommendation on the basis of the appropriateness. We don't think it's appropriate for the government to keep in government databases a record of every phone call everybody ever makes and be able to look at those records without judicial review.
As to the efficacy, what we found was just simply factual, that there was not a case where the phone metadata program was essential to stopping a terrorist attack. It could be in the future. It just hasn't been so far.
CORNISH: But I guess most Americans are hearing you say that it's not essential to date...
CLARKE: Has not been.
CORNISH: ...and then, at the same time, that there's still some value in keeping it. I mean, explain.
CLARKE: It has not been essential to date. I mean, has your burglar alarm gone off before? No, but you still might have a burglar alarm.
CORNISH: Going forward, as the president is about to weigh in and say what he wants to do with the NSA, what would you like to hear from him?
CLARKE: Well, I'd like to hear him accept all 46 of our recommendations.
CORNISH: That's a long list, though.
CLARKE: It's a long list, but it's not an unreasonable list. We believe essentially two things here: that you can secure the United States as well as we are today and still protect civil liberties and privacy rights. And right now we're not doing a good job of that balance. But we think it is possible. Secondly, we think that - God forbid, there were to be another 9/11, given the technology that exists today, we could create a police surveillance state.
So we think now, while we are in a period of calm, we should put in place more roadblocks so that some future Congress and some future president would not have an easy time creating a police surveillance state with that technology.
CORNISH: Richard Clarke is a member of President Obama's intelligence review group. He previously served as a top counterterrorism adviser in the Clinton and both Bush administrations. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
CLARKE: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.