Skip to content

After NSA Leaks, Senators Question Snowden Vetting, Secret Court

As lawmakers began to explore ways to respond to the public disclosure of a pair of top-secret National Security Agency operations, the question also arose as to why the leaker had a security clearance in the first place.

Edward Snowden was fired by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton as of Monday after revealing through The Guardian newspaper that he was the source of leaks that led to the disclosure of NSA surveillance programs that involved the bulk collection of phone records and Internet traffic.

“Snowden, who had a salary at the rate of $122,000, was terminated June 10, 2013, for violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy,” the company said. “News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”

Senators seemed taken aback that the 29-year-old contractor had access to information about the NSA programs.

“I’m just stunned that an individual who did not even graduate with a high-school diploma, who did not successfully complete his military service, and who is only age 29, had access to some of the most highly classified information in our government. That’s astonishing to me, and it suggests real problems with the vetting,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “Clearly the rules are not being applied well where they need to be more strict. It’s also troubling to me when I have heard that his salary was something like $200,000 for a … high-school dropout who had little maturity, had not successfully completed anything he’d undertaken, whether it was high school, community college or the Army.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who also serves as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, wants to know more about Snowden’s vetting.

“I look at this man and say, all right, who made that decision. Was that a Booz Allen decision? Was that an NSA decision? What was the standard used?” the Illinois Democrat said, adding that there “definitely” needs to be more scrutiny given to the process through which the government grants security clearances. “I want to know more about this man, but what I’ve learned so far is troubling.”

Durbin is among the senators who have supported past efforts to expand public disclosure about the NSA programs and to narrow the scope of the operations.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who was among a group of eight senators introducing a bill Tuesday to require the declassification of important Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions related to the NSA, said that the public should know more about these programs, without defending Snowden. “There’s been a pretty public example of why people ought to be concerned about these laws that are very broad and give the government all kinds of power,” Lee said, before saying that he thought it would be appropriate to characterize Snowden as a traitor. “From what I’ve been told, the guy broke a whole bunch of laws.”

Collins, who noted she joined the Intelligence Committee at the start of this Congress, wants to hear more about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“I think having the court provide some carefully worded summaries might well be helpful, but I want to learn more,” she said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wants to keep the attention off Snowden and on the government. Paul told CBS that he viewed Snowden’s own criminal liability as a less important issue, with the scope of the NSA programs related to phone records and electronic communication deserving the Senate’s and the public’s attention.

At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney emphasized a point made Monday by Senate Judiciary ranking member Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa: Congress had a chance to expand whistle-blower protections for employees of the intelligence community and opted against it.

“Because it was clear that Congress would not provide protections for intelligence community whistle-blowers, the president took executive action, issuing a landmark directive that extended whistle-blower protections to the intelligence and national security communities for the first time,” Carney said. “The directive prohibits retaliation against whistle-blowers who report information through the appropriate channels and established procedures, including a review panel of [inspectors general] of other agencies to ensure that such — retaliation does not occur.”

“I think he’s sort of a side point,” Paul said. “I think the real point is that the Bill of Rights are being violated. Our privacy is being violated. Really, no government should do this, and we need to obey the rules.”

Durbin, a member of the “gang of eight” that drafted the Senate’s pending immigration overhaul, also said any proposed changes to the intelligence laws shouldn’t come up as amendments to that measure, including the proposal from Lee, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and others to provide more transparency about the FISA court process.

“That would be a serious mistake. I would resist that — whatever they want,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday in response to a question about the chances NSA amendments may surface.

Recent Stories

High-speed routes biggest winners in latest rail funding round

Appeals court upholds most of Trump gag order in DC case

Kevin Up — Congressional Hits and Misses

House GOP cites new Hunter Biden charges in impeachment push

Congress must protect our servicemembers by reauthorizing Section 702 

Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023