A Challenge to the NSA: Deny Snowden's Most Radical Claims Under Oath

Some officials say the whistleblower was lying. The journalist who brought his revelations to light wants them to say it under oath.
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On ABC's Sunday-morning news program, This Week, George Stephanopolous led with the Anthony Weiner scandal -- after all, whatever happens to be going on in New York City and sex are always the most vital topics in the United States. A bit later, however, he got to the next most important story: the possibility that low-level NSA analysts can access anyone's calls, emails, and web history.

Critics of NSA leaker Edward Snowden have long insisted that he has "greatly exaggerated the amount of information available to people like him." The most radical claim in Snowden's video was perhaps that "I, sitting at my desk ... had the authority to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email."

Was he exaggerating? Or was he right all along?

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian says its the latter:

George Stephanopolous: Now that claim was denied by intelligence officials, and the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said that he was actually lying.

But your new reporting you say bolsters Snowden's claim.

Glenn Greenwald: Right, George. One of the most amazing parts of this entire episode has been that top-level national security officials like James Clapper really did get caught red-handed lying to the American Congress, which everyone now acknowledges, about what the NSA is doing. And it's amazing that he not only hasn't been prosecuted, but still has his job. And what that does is, it lets national-security officials continue to lie to the public, which is what happened in that exchange you just referenced.

The way that I know exactly what analysts have the capability to do when they're spying on Americans is that the story I've been working on for the last month that we're publishing this week very clearly sets forth what these programs are that NSA analysts -- low-level ones, not just ones who work for the NSA, but private contractors like Mr. Snowden -- are able to do. The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and emails in their databases that they've collected over the last several years. And what these programs are, are very simple screens like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address and it does two things: it searches a database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you've entered. And it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address of that IP address do in the future.

And it's all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst. There are legal constraints for how you can spy on Americans. You can't target them without going through the FISA court. But these systems allow analysts to listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. It's an incredibly powerful and invasive tool exactly of the type that Mr. Snowden described. And NSA officials are going to be testifying before the Senate on Wednesday. And I defy them to deny that these programs work exactly as I just said.

If Senate oversight is worth anything, the NSA officials who testify before it on Wednesday will be asked to respond under oath to Greenwald's remarks (or his story, if it has posted.) Of course, it isn't as if national-security officials haven't lied to Congress before without any consequences.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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