NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And we focus today on what we now know about U.S. government information sweeps of telephone and Internet data and on the man who now admits he disclosed the top secret documents to The Guardian and the Washington Post.
In a few minutes, we'll hear from former CIA director James Woolsey, we'll gather reaction from the talk shows and the op-ed pages, and we'll want to hear from you too. But first, let's hear from Edward Snowden himself in an interview published by The Guardian, conducted by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitrus.
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GLENN GREENWALD: One of the things people are going to be most interested in, in trying to understand what, who you are and what you're thinking, is there came some point in time when you crossed this line of thinking about being a whistleblower to making the choice to actually become a whistleblower. Walk people through that decision making process.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: When you're in positions of privileged access like a systems administrator for these sort of intelligence community agencies, you're exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee, and because of that you see things that may be disturbing but over the course of a normal person's career you'd only see one or two of these instances.
When you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis and you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses. And when you talk to people about them in a place like this, where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and, you know, move on from them.
But over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you're ignored. The more you're told it's not a problem. Until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.
GREENWALD: Talk a little bit about how the American surveillance state actually functions. Does it target the actions of Americans?
SNOWDEN: NSA and the intelligence community in general is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can, by any means possible. It believes, on the grounds of sort of a self-certification, that they serve the national interest. Originally we saw that focus very narrowly tailored as foreign intelligence gathered overseas.
Now increasingly we see that it's happening domestically. And to do that they, the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyses them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time simply because that's the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends.
So while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they're collecting your communications to do so.
Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.
GREENWALD: One of the extraordinary parts about this episode is that usually whistleblowers do what they do anonymously and take steps to remain anonymous for as long as they can, which they hope often is forever. You on the other hand have decided to do the opposite, which is to declare yourself openly as the person behind these disclosures. Why did you choose to do that?
SNOWDEN: I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy. And if you do that in secret consistently, you know, as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it'll kind of give its officials a mandate to go, hey, you know, tell the press about this thing and that thing so the public is on our side.
But they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens. But they're typically maligned. You know, it becomes a thing of these people are against the country. They're against the government. But I'm not.
I'm no different from anybody else. I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes this is something that's not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.
And I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say I didn't change these, I didn't modify the story. This is the truth, this is what's happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.
GREENWALD: Have you given thought to what it is that the U.S. government's response to your conduct is in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you, what they might try to do to you?
SNOWDEN: Yeah, I could be, you know, rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of their third-party partners. You know, they work closely with a number of other nations. And that's a fear I'll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.
You can't come forward against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they're such powerful adversaries. No one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they'll get you in time. But at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that's important to you.
And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you're willing to accept, and I think it many of us are, it's the human nature, you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.
But if you realize that that's the world you helped create, and it's going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk, and it doesn't matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that's applied.
GREENWALD: Why should people care about surveillance?
SNOWDEN: Because even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude, to where it's getting to the point you don't have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call.
And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
GREENWALD: We are currently sitting in a room in Hong Kong, which is where we are because you travelled here. Talk a little bit about why it is that you came here and specifically there are going to be people who speculate that what you really intend to do is to defect to the country that many see as the number one rival of the United States, which is China, and that what you are really doing is essentially seeking to aid an enemy of the United States with which you intend to seek asylum. Can you talk a little about that?
SNOWDEN: Sure. So there's a couple assertions in those arguments that are sort of embedded in the questioning of the choice of Hong Kong. The first is that China is an enemy of the United States. It's not. I mean there are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government, but the peoples inherently, you know, we don't care. We trade with each other freely, you know, we're not at war, we're not in armed conflict, and we're not trying to be. We're the largest trading partners out there for each other.
Additionally, Hong Kong has a strong tradition of free speech. People think, oh, China, great firewall. Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech, but the Hong Kong - the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, of making their views known. The Internet is not filtered here, no more so than any other Western government. And I believe that the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments.
GREENWALD: If your motive had been to harm the United States and help its enemies, or if your motive had been personal material gain, were there things you could have done with these documents to advance those goals that you didn't end up doing?
SNOWDEN: Oh, absolutely. Anyone in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I had could, you know, suck out secrets, pass them on the open market to Russia; you know, they always have an open door, as we do. I had access to, you know, the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world. The locations of every station. We have what their missions are and so forth.
If I had just wanted to harm the U.S., you know, you could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon. But that's not my intention. I think for anyone making that argument, they need to think, if they were in my position, and you know, you live a privileged life, you're living in Hawaii, in paradise, and making a ton of money, what would it take to make you leave everything behind?
The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change, people will see in the media all of these disclosures, they'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society, but they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.
And the months ahead, the years ahead, it's only going to get worse until eventually there will be a time where policies will change, because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policy. Even our agreements with other sovereign governments, we consider that to be a stipulation of policy rather than a stipulation of law.
And because of that a new leader will be elected, they'll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world, you know, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power. And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turn-key tyranny.
CONAN: That's Edward Snowden, the man who claims to have leaked top secret documents on American electronic information sweeps, in an interview published by the Guardian conducted by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitrus. Reaction to the leak and to the revelations after a short break. We'll start with former CIA director James Woolsey. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Before the break, we heard the voice of Edward Snowden speaking with reporters from The Guardian. He's the man who claims responsibility for leaking secret documents on U.S. surveillance activity. In just a moment, we'll hear from some of his detractors. We also want to hear from you.
Where do you draw the line in how far the government should go to uncover terrorist plots? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ambassador James Woolsey led the Central Intelligence Agency between 1993 and 1995. He's now chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and joins us by phone from here in Washington. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
JAMES WOOLSEY: Good to be with you again.
CONAN: And if we take Edward Snowden at his word, what has he done?
WOOLSEY: Well, he's done two things. He's decided to ignore President Obama's I think very clear statement a couple days ago that you can't have both 100-percent privacy and 100-percent security, you've got to strike some kind of balance. Snowden decided no, you go for only privacy and don't consider security.
The second thing he decided was that even though the president and the Congress and the courts, working very hard on a new system that they've set up in order to regulate these activities, that they are all three to be ignored and that he, Snowden, should be the decision-maker for the American people and a lot of other people as well as to where the line between security and privacy is drawn. And I think it is an extraordinarily terrible thing for him to have done.
CONAN: How does it hurt the United States?
WOOLSEY: It hurts the United States because it makes it easier to - for terrorists to avoid having their communications understood, how they're occurring and how they're taking place and so forth. It's a problem with any of these things - is that you are not just explaining to people sitting in their living rooms or driving cars how the system works, you're explaining to the terrorists.
And Mr. Snowden has decided he would rather explain to the terrorists how we are getting into their communications than not and that it's his decision to make, not the president's, not the Congress, not the courts.
CONAN: Do you take him at his word that this was an act of conscience?
WOOLSEY: If it's an act of conscience, it's an act of such an extraordinarily full-of-himself conscience that he's decided is his conscience is better than the considered conscience of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, of the committees of the Congress that review this regularly and the president of the United States.
He is got to be so much full of himself that he can barely distinguish between what is conscience and what is not.
CONAN: As you mentioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court a couple of times, that's the court that authorized this activity. It has been referred to several times as kind of a rubber stamp. In the past year, so far as we know, they have not turned down any government request. You've had more experience with this than we have. Is it a rubber stamp?
WOOLSEY: Well, it came into existence after I was at the CIA, but no, I don't think it's a rubber stamp, and I think the key thing is that that's the wrong criterion. There are dozens of times that the court's activities have modified the approach - this has been all over the press - have modified the approach of the way that communications are dealt with.
It tends not to operate in such a way that you make a presentation, you either win or lose, but it has been reasonably active in bringing about modifications. It's not a rubber stamp. That can only be said by someone who doesn't know the court and the way it works.
CONAN: And the scope of the activities that have been revealed, to some people, well, if you're going after individuals certainly, but the scope of this eavesdropping, or collection is more accurate, and holding on to this information for so long, that troubles people.
WOOLSEY: Well, it's a new world with a new type of communications networks. And if this system operates in such a way that if you and I talk with one another every few days, and then suddenly out of the blue one day you call Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two guy in al-Qaida, in Pakistan, it's going to get people's attention, and people are going to say oh my goodness, who else has been calling Zawahiri?
That's the way this one works. It's so-called metadata. It's not interceptions of individuals' phone conversations. It wouldn't operate to intercept what you and I say substantively here, but it probably at some level would know that we were talking to one another.
CONAN: There have been a couple of instances presented in which this information was used over the past couple of years, including the prevention of, it's said, an attack on the New York City subway.
WOOLSEY: Yes, and it would have been wonderful if we'd had something like this before 9/11. Instead, we had a bias in the system so heavily in favor of privacy that it barred a lot of communication between different parts of the FBI pre-9/11, not just between the FBI and the CIA but between different parts of the FBI.
So we had tilted so far toward privacy that we had, I think, written off a good deal of security, and thousands of people died, in part because of that.
CONAN: Now some say we've tiled so far away from need to know towards information sharing that a relatively low-level employee of a government contractor has access to extraordinary amounts of information.
WOOLSEY: Yeah, we really got, after we started making some changes in this, we really got off into this sort of kindergarten sandbox view of reality, which is the only thing that matters is sharing. And if you just share more, everything will work. Well, sometimes it's bad folks that are doing the sharing in order to plan how to fly airplanes into buildings.
And it's not just a matter of sharing. You can't fix everything just by sharing. Sometimes you want to share. But it's a case-by-case decision by people who know what they're doing and are working hard on it, and it should not be made by some random guy who just decides since he knows what's best for the world, he'll decide whether people are to die or not.
CONAN: You and Mr. Snowden share a former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton. You were vice president there until a few years ago. Does this case do you think raise alarm bells about the amount of access given to contract employees?
WOOLSEY: I don't know. He was only there three months, and I had been long gone by the time he showed up. So I don't know what kind of job he had or what was shared or what was stolen. You need to find somebody who actually knows what happened.
CONAN: But Booz Allen Hamilton, when you were there, clearly a major defense contractor?
WOOLSEY: Yes and did a good job and the head of much of the work was the former head of the National Security Agency, and they were responsible, able people.
CONAN: What should happen now?
WOOLSEY: Well, I think Mr. Snowden should get a fair trial, once we can get him as a result of extradition or something. And if I were on the jury, I would vote for as long a penalty as possible to give under the statute.
CONAN: Does his presence in Hong Kong concern you?
WOOLSEY: Well, Hong Kong is a complex place. We have an extradition treaty with it. It's still under Chinese jurisdiction for some purposes, but it has a certain degree of independence. So the international lawyers are all scampering, I think, once they saw that he was in Hong Kong. And that could definitely add some complexity.
I would hope that the reasonably good terms that the president and the president of China just showed to all of us would be something that would make this relatively easy to resolve in the sense that we would be able to get Snowden and be able to prosecute him.
CONAN: And there will presumably be an investigation to see if Mr. Snowden is: A, accurate; and B, if he had help. But an indictment should be coming fairly soon do you suspect?
WOOLSEY: I don't know. This area is complicated because the major statute, the Espionage Act of 1917, really is normally not used for people who are functioning like members of the press. And the question was, with Snowden thinking of himself as a kind of a blogger who would just blog for the world, was he a member of the press or not? Some of these things will be hashed out.
But he has indeed provided classified information to people who are enemies of the United States, but whether it's Iranian intelligence or North Korean intelligence or Hezbollah or whatever, he's responsible for their having the material, and he presumably decided before he gave them the material, them and the rest of the world, that it was better for them to have it than not.
CONAN: And even if there is now a productive debate on the extent of U.S. surveillance, the legality of such and the purposes of this kind of intelligence gathering, if the American public is better informed and makes a rational decision, even so, this is beyond the pale.
WOOLSEY: Well, the American public is better informed, but so is Hezbollah. You can't segregate off Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and so forth and keep them in the dark while you tell Mr. and Mrs. America exactly how this intelligence collection works. If you could, all of this would be easy, but when you tell anybody, you tell the terrorists. And I think that one doesn't want to just say the situation should always be governed by more information being made public.
This - the current system we've got is a studied effort produced as a result of work by two presidents, by a very sophisticated and knowledgeable set of individuals on a classified court, the FISA court and by the committees of the Congress who has the Democrats as well as the Republicans said we have a good system up here. We're briefed regularly, et cetera. Some people think the system is no good unless they know. Some congressmen have said basically I haven't been briefed so I need to be briefed.
But if you brief 535 members of the Congress, the House and the Senate, rather than just a handful of people at the tops of the intelligence committees, you're far more likely to have leaks. All of this is a compromise between informing the terrorists and having effective intelligence collection programs. And Mr. Snowden opted for the less effective program and for more knowledge on the part of the terrorists.
CONAN: Ambassador Woolsey, thank you very much for your time today.
WOOLSEY: Thank you.
CONAN: James Woolsey led the Central Intelligence Agency between 1993 and 1995. He's now chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. And, of course, we want to hear from you. In efforts to prevent terrorism, how far should the U.S. government go? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll also bring you reaction to this story from the talk shows yesterday and from the op-ed pages as well. But let's begin with a caller, and Patrick(ph) is on the line. Patrick is with us from Syracuse, New York.
PATRICK: How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
PATRICK: Just to say that I think losing the idea of what freedom is, I mean freedom should be I am who am I. You know, my data is my data. I do not think under any circumstances that we should be under surveillance. And, you know, alls I hear as well we, you know, we went out. We did this, and we saved, you know, a possible terrorist act from happening. And how, you know, that excuse - I mean how far can that go? Can the government go into a neighborhood and say, jeez, we went through 500 homes, and we think this one person was going to do something.
I mean, you know, once you start getting into that whole realm of, well, we looked at 10,000 people, we may have foiled something. Well, then our whole idea of the U.S. being free kind of goes down the drain. I mean I just - how far every year since 9/11 our civil liberties, everything is just in the toilet. And I just, you know, if - the gentleman on before said, well, we should be able to do this, and, you know, we shouldn't, you know, this gentleman should not have come out because the terrorists learn that we look at phone records. Well, they already know that.
PATRICK: I mean there's - if we think we're the only people that are smart, we're wrong. I mean the terrorists are pretty smart, and I understand that. But how far can we go? I mean, you know, and we're - I think we've gone way too far. My phone records, my online activity is mine. It's - and that's the way it should be.
CONAN: All right, Patrick, thanks very much for the phone call. We're gathering reaction to the leak and to the leaker. Of course, the story is the publication of documents by The Guardian and The Washington Post about the extent to which the United States gathers information from telephone calls and from the Internet. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we mentioned we'll take a look at some of the op-ed pages as well. This is from James Fallows of The Atlantic: I believe that the United States and the world have gained much more, in democratic accountability, than they have lost in any way with the revelation of these various NSA monitoring programs. That these programs are legal - unlike the Nixon plumbers operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of whistle-blower revelations over the years - is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in our name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset.
Let's see if we get another caller in on the line, and this is Nathan(ph), and Nathan is on the line with us from Berkeley.
CONAN: Go ahead, please. Nathan? Nathan, are you there? Well, we swear there's no electronic surveillance involved in Nathan's cellphone. It's apparently betraying him. In fact, it just dropped the line. Let's go to this op-ed from David Simon, of course, the writer of The Wire, a former police reporter in Baltimore, Maryland, who said he is shocked - shocked - in his blog that such things are going on. I know it's big and scary the government wants a database of all phone calls, he wrote. And it's scary that they're paying attention to the Internet.
And it's scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. And it's scary, too, that the little box that lets you go through the short toll lane on I-95 lets someone, somewhere know that you are on the move. But be honest, most of us are grudging participants in this dynamic. We want the cellphones. We like the Internet. We don't want to sit in the slow lane at the Harbor Tunnel toll plaza. The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and lesser extent.
Therefore, the present-day question can't seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental. Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy and in a manner that is unsupervised? Add to that, The Guardian, and to those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don't know of any actual abuse.
And we have this email from Ross(ph) in Richmond, New Hampshire. Unless one is willing to go back 20 years, giving up cellphones and computers, you have to accept that any electronic communications can be monitored if not by our government, then by a foreign government.
After a short break, we'll have more reaction to the NSA surveillance story and whistleblower Edward Snowden with Brian Fung from the National Journal. Stay with us. More of your calls and emails as well. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Right now, we're talking about confessed leaker Edward Snowden and what the documents he shared reveal about the National Security Agency's programs to monitor Internet activity and phone call data. We want your take. Where do draw the line, and how far the U.S. government should go to uncover terrorist plots? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@.npr.org. You can also join the conversation online. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Over the weekend, President Obama spent two days with Chinese President Xi Jinping, discussing among other things inroads by Chinese hackers into secret weapons programs and U.S. corporate secrets. Ironically, those talks came as Snowden, an NSA contractor, disclosed details of two secret U.S. surveillance programs.
Brian Fung has been following the story for National Journal and wrote about the threat pose by insiders as compared to the more publicized danger from foreign hackers. He joins us now from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you with us today.
BRIAN FUNG: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And employees you find may present a greater risk than foreign hackers?
FUNG: Well, I think, you know, when it comes to Congress and the public discussion, you know, a lot of people are focused on the threat of foreign hackers and particularly the threat from China when in fact there's been actually a fair number of research reports that have been done looking at risks to cyber security posed by corporate insiders.
CONAN: And corporate - who leaks this information? Is it stolen? We talked to - heard about Chinese stealing plans for the stealth aircraft, for example.
FUNG: Well, in many cases, the theft happens in almost exactly the same way. You know, it's someone who is - who has access to data inside the company and really just - it's a difference in the matter of execution. So you'll have often a disgruntled employee, a former IT contractor, like Snowden, who has access to sensitive information, can then copy that information wittingly or unwittingly and take it outside of the office.
CONAN: Or what sometimes used to be referred to as old-fashioned espionage. They convince an employee to give them the information one way or another.
FUNG: That's right. You know, convincing people to hand over the files or putting them in a compromising situation where they have no choice but to cooperate with a foreign agent, yeah, that's absolutely something that's possible.
CONAN: And you would put agents of conscience like Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden in the same situation?
FUNG: Absolutely. It's much less clear whether Snowden and Manning are comparable. There's been some debate online specifically on this point where Snowden, you know, published information about a specific piece of wrongdoing or a potential wrongdoing. Bradley Manning was actually involved in a much broader sort of data dump that didn't necessarily involve wrongdoing or uncovering secrets of that sort.
CONAN: Interesting, both of them said, you know, we could have done a lot more. We kept stuff back that would have even been more damaging.
FUNG: Yes. And I think that, you know, when it comes to the judgment of Snowden to release some information and not others, you know, he justified his actions by saying, you know, I want a lot of this to be picked over and judged by, you know, journalists and (unintelligible) and the average American who will be able to talk about it, you know, in - on their own terms and with each other rather than him laying everything out there, saying that, you know, all of this is equally important.
CONAN: Now, interesting, we're talking about two programs, one of which collected so-called metadata on telephone calls, the other looked at some of the Internet. In both cases, companies were involved. Their records were the ones that were subpoenaed, whether that was Verizon or whether that was Facebook or Google. Did those companies have any choice in this matter?
FUNG: Well, the way that Verizon and Google and Facebook and these companies were approached by the government, and they are very clear about this in their public statements, is that they only hand information over to the government when it's been requested to them - requested of them, excuse me, under court orders. So basically, how it happens in Verizon's case is the government asks a secret court that is governed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the government asks that court for permission to request access to data from these companies. And anyone who is a recipient of these court orders has the option to challenge the directive in court before they hand anything over.
So in theory, you know, Verizon and Google and Facebook and a lot of these other tech companies have the option of resisting. Now, whether or not they actually did is a separate question. You know, many of these court orders actually come with gag orders attached that prevent these companies from even talking about what they've been given by the government. And so, you know, even if Verizon had tried to resist, we probably wouldn't be able to find that out.
CONAN: And the public statements though by these companies who did cooperate have been - well, let's put a nice a face on it - carefully worded.
FUNG: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, what eventually came out over the weekend was that the reports from The Washington Post and The Guardian, both of which broke this news initially, were looking at the PowerPoint slides that came from the NSA that Snowden leaked. And what they ended up - what ended up happening was actually that the reporters misunderstood what Snowden was trying to say when he said direct access to servers. It turns out that these companies don't actually have "direct access," quote, unquote, to - I'm sorry. The NSA doesn't have direct access to the companies' servers. What in fact might be happening is that these companies are setting up drop boxes or some other separate location where they then put the data for the NSA to pick up.
CONAN: And, for example, Verizon said that we've never heard of PRISM. That could be just the government never told them the code word.
FUNG: That's correct. And it's also important to point out that the kind of data that Verizon was handing over to the government is qualitatively different from the kind of data that Google and Facebook were providing to the NSA. What Verizon was handing over was phone records, so not actual content of phone conversations or anything like that. It wasn't wiretapping at all. It was mostly, you know, phone numbers, call length and call duration, where the phone calls may have originated, where the location of the recipient was, and so on and so forth.
CONAN: OK. Brian Fung, thanks very much for your time today.
FUNG: Thank you.
CONAN: Brian Fung, technology writer for National Journal. He joined us from his office here in Washington. He wrote, among other pieces, "Why Insiders, Not Hackers, are the Biggest Threat to Cybersecurity." You can find a link to that on our website. That's at npr.org.
Let's get some more reaction. And let's go to Hugo(ph), and Hugo is on the line with us from Dallas.
HUGO: Oh, hi, Neal. Long-time listener, first-time caller.
CONAN: Well, thanks.
HUGO: So after listening to the interview with Snowden and the follow-up interview with the ambassador, former CIA officer and former Booz Allen employee, I think that the second commentator missed the primary methods of Snowden which was it's less about the process that the government is using to spy and more about the process of checks and balances and oversight. And that's what's sort of lacking in public discourse today, and I think that that's what we need to have more of. Anybody who's seen the movie should know that, yeah, your records can be tapped like that.
CONAN: But there is oversight. Congress has been briefed. These orders were signed by a judge, a court.
HUGO: Well, if Woolsey is making the comment that, oh, we can't brief more people in Congress because it might be leaked, he is essentially saying, well, we can't trust our own elected politicians to testify (unintelligible).
CONAN: Just to be fair, he said you can't brief 535, which is everybody in Congress. But many members of Congress were briefed.
HUGO: OK. Well, again, maybe I'm ill-informed as well in terms of the documents that are leaked by Snowden and the current process. But what I want and what I think most Americans should want is to have the process of checks and balances that we can all have faith and confidence in is working and that we're not subverting the Constitution, that we're not subverting people's rights to privacy.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Hugo. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And here's one of the op-eds that we've been looking at. This is from Steve Benen. He writes about who is accountable for this. In theory, President Obama could've chosen a different path after taking office in 2009. Of course, this program started under President Bush. But the historical pattern in clear: If Congress gives a wartime president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check, limiting how far our White House can go, but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.
This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon. Lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area. Lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama's hands. What's more, they not only passed laws - these measures into law, they chose not to do very much by way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.
Let's go next to Scott(ph). Scott's with us from Detroit.
SCOTT: Hi. Hi, Neal. Well, I just wanted to say that I'm not particularly troubled by the revelations over the weekend because we willingly every day give up vast amounts of information more telling about who we are to major corporations to gets discounts on groceries and to - I have tailored ads on Google. So, you know, what the government is asking - looking at is not even that significant compared to what - again what we're literally giving out to save a dollar at the grocery store.
CONAN: Yes. But the Walmart grocery store can't put you in jail for anything.
SCOTT: Well, yeah, but they can pretty much - they could, in theory, figure out, you know, when I'm going to be at the store, you know? And I find that a lot more troubling than what the government is doing.
CONAN: All right, Scott. Thanks very much for the call.
SCOTT: Bye. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking about the leak that was published by The Guardian and then by The Washington Post revealing the extent of U.S. surveillance programs, released a much greater extent than anybody previously understood. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This email from Thomas(ph) in Oklahoma City: I live in a state with significant anti-government sentiment already. My Facebook has been awash with people declaring we're just one step shy from tyranny. I think people make these claims because we're so unfamiliar with what tyranny really is. The fact that we still have a free exchange of ideas tells me we still have a long way to go. We're still having this national conversation, which is far more than people can do under true tyrannies. This is a small event that will blow over like every other. How is this any worse than what the FBI was doing in the 1950s or the CIA in the 1960s?
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, praised Snowden's actions to CNN's Don Lemon last night.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I'm very impressed by what I've heard in the last couple of hours including Snowden's own video here. I think he's done an enormous service - incalculable service. It can't be overestimated to this democracy. It gives us a chance, I think, from drawing back from the total surveillance state that we could say are in process of becoming, I'm afraid we have become. That's what he's revealed.
CONAN: Daniel Ellsberg also wrote a piece for The Daily Beast: I'm glad they wiretap the mafia, he said. I'm glad they wiretap people reasonably suspected of being terrorists. Fine. They can certainly get warrants for that. They can get any warrant they want. But scooping up all the digital data of everyone in the country, it's ridiculous to call that constitutional. That's a different form of government than what we had 200 years ago. What it is is East Germany without the mass detentions. That's according to Daniel Ellsberg.
This email from Dan(ph) in Sacramento: I may admire Mr. Snowden for his take - courage to take on the establishment. However, I do think he should be free from punishment. Duplicitous, maybe, but just as President Obama said, you can't have absolute safety and absolute privacy. Neither can one have absolute freedom to challenge the government and absolute freedom from prosecution. One must always consider the cost of one's actions. Civil rights pioneers understood that challenging the status quo would require some loss, so should Snowden.
And let's go to Daniel(ph), Daniel on the line with us from Salt Lake City.
DANIEL: Hi, Neal. How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
DANIEL: Just wanted to make a quick comment about the fact that the Patriot Act has a very broad definition of what a terrorist is. And I feel like if there was a specific definition there and the powers that were granted to people or to the government when they are finding someone that's considered a terrorist under that definition, was more of a concern to the general U.S. public that our civil rights are not only being violated on a regular basis, but also that your definition or the definition of the government goes by for a terrorist could very well apply to U.S. citizens.
CONAN: Well, shouldn't it apply to someone like the person who blew up the federal office in Oklahoma City? Isn't that a terrorist?
DANIEL: Oh, you know, absolutely. But I think that the war on terror and the term terrorist is used in such loose terms that it encompasses more than those people. Those people are accurate definitions of terrorism and terrorists. But the, you know, the person that is also included in that is, you know, the guy on the corner that's you know, selling a bag of, you know, green. It's not like it's the same - it's not the same. And those people lose their rights the same way as anyone else that's considered a terrorist. And we should be concerned that, you know, if you get along within that category for whatever reason that government assumes to be accurate, then you're - you have no rights at that point.
CONAN: Well, I'm not sure that that goes quite that far, Daniel, and I'm not sure that anybody's selling a bag of green has been characterized as a terrorist, but...
DANIEL: I - take a look at the Patriot Act and...
CONAN: I'm not just sure that it's been used in that context.
DANIEL: It hasn't, but it very well could.
CONAN: Ah. OK. Thank you, Daniel. Appreciate the phone call. This email from Keith(ph) in Springfield: I feel like a suspect even though I never will or I will - I am not and never will be a threat.
This from Michael(ph) in Duluth, Georgia: Regarding PRISM and the other NSA surveillance, many Americans, including your first caller, are apparently alarmed not by what has happened, but by the vast realm of all possibilities and potentialities of what could happen. Yes, the government could perform horribly evil deeds with this data, so could Google, the mafia, telemarketers or anyone else. The question is not what could happen, but what has happened, whose rights have been violated? What laws have been broken? Why do people assume there is guarantee of Internet privacy? There is no such thing.
Well, thank you all for your emails, your telephone calls and your tweets. Sorry we couldn't get to all of them. Tomorrow, Lynn Neary will be here with a look at how the organ transplant list work, who gets what and why. I'll be back with you again on Wednesday with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.