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The Detroit Free Press - NSA Surveillance Program Isn't the Scandal You Think it is


Date: June 16, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

By Representative Mike Rogers

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, it is my responsibility to ensure strict and thorough congressional oversight of the important work done by America's intelligence agencies. I have been disheartened by dangerous national security leaks that have grossly distorted two vital National Security Agency programs that have proved very effective in preventing terror attacks in the U.S. without infringing on Americans' privacy and civil liberties.

At a time when the Obama administration's IRS, Benghazi and Justice Department scandals have understandably damaged Americans' trust in their government, it is important to understand why these programs are different. Neither program allows the NSA to read e-mails or listen to phone calls of American citizens. Both programs are constitutional and do not violate any American's Fourth Amendment rights. Both are strictly overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a federal court created in 1978 to protect the rights of American citizens in the course of foreign intelligence gathering.

There are also several layers of checks and balances put in place around these programs within the executive branch and Congress. Both programs are overseen by lawyers and compliance auditors from the Department of Justice, the director of national intelligence and multiple independent inspectors general. Both have also been authorized by large bipartisan majorities in Congress and are regularly reviewed by the House and Senate intelligence committees. The effectiveness of these programs is without question. Both have produced vital intelligence that has prevented dozens of terrorist attacks within the U.S. and around the world.

The first program allows the NSA to preserve a limited category of business records to help identify foreign terrorists and their plots to attack the U.S. This court-authorized program allows NSA to preserve only phone records such as the numbers dialed and the date, time and duration of calls. These records do not include the names or personal information of any American and do not include any content of calls.

When the NSA wants to query the records, it must establish through a court-approved process that there is a reasonable suspicion a specific number is connected to a foreign terrorist. Only a limited number of analysts can obtain approval to conduct a narrow and targeted search of those numbers. If U.S. connections are found, they are passed to the FBI for further investigation. If the FBI wants to determine the identity of a phone number resulting from an NSA search, they must obtain a separate court order. These call record searches, which are regularly audited for compliance by all three branches of government, are a vital tool for connecting the dots between foreign terrorists plotting attacks in the U.S. and in other countries.

The second program, known as PRISM, allows the NSA to obtain a court order to access the electronic communications of suspected foreign terrorists overseas. Because much of the world's Internet traffic flows through U.S. infrastructure, the law allows the NSA to obtain the specific communications of foreign suspects from U.S. companies with a court order. This program does not create a "back door" to any U.S. company's server. This program cannot and does not monitor the communications of any U.S. citizens.

All 535 members of Congress have had access to classified briefings describing the specific uses of these two programs, though not all members have chosen to attend these briefings.

It is important to consider the source of the news media leaks about these two vital intelligence programs. These leaks came from a person not involved in the careful execution of these programs, and with access to only small pieces of a larger puzzle. He decided to break the law and the oath he took to the American people by publicly disclosing parts of these classified programs, and then fled to China. These are the actions of a felon, not a whistle-blower.

The effectiveness of these programs depends on them being kept secret from the foreign terrorists they target. It is much easier for terrorists to hide from us if they understand the sources and methods of our intelligence gathering. We have already seen al-Qaida begin to shift their communication tactics as a result of these leaks, and it will now be much harder for us to find them.

It is no coincidence that the leaders from across the American political spectrum who take the time to understand these important programs are also their strongest supporters. They understand that these narrowly targeted programs are legal, do not invade Americans' privacy rights, and are essential to detecting and disrupting future terrorist attacks.