Officials refute NSA surveillance "hyperbole"

Current and former U.S. officials stormed the talk show circuit on Sunday to tamp down the controversy swirling about the National Security Agency's recently revealed surveillance programs, saying the man who leaked their existence - and the media reporting on them - are misrepresenting the extent of the government's surveillance authority.

Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who helmed the NSA and the CIA under former President George W. Bush, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that it was "unfortunate" that two specific programs were leaked at the same time, saying the details of the two programs have bled together in the media's reporting and the public's understanding, "much to the harm of the national debate."

One program, the telephone "metadata" program that obtains call logs from Americans' telephone lines, "does touch upon Americans in a massive way with phone records," Hayden explained, but does not survey the "content" of conversations.

The other program, called PRISM, surveys foreigners' Internet use, "and it is about content," Hayden said.

"There's a natural instinct in the United States to rush the story to the darkest corner of the room," he said. "But I don't think that's where this story belongs. And as Americans learn about the safeguards and the effects of the products of this program, I think they'll become even more comfortable."

The man who leaked the programs' existence, 29-year-old former defense contractor Edward Snowden, said he "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," a claim Hayden categorically rebutted.

"Snowden's wrong," he said. "He could not possibly have done the things he claimed he was able to do in terms of tapping communications."

Hayden's unqualified denial of Snowden's wiretapping assertions was seconded by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that any claim of on-demand eavesdropping was "incorrect."

"It's surely my view that he did" overstate his surveillance abilities, McDonough said.

"I worry a little bit about some of the hyperbole that now is being thrown around from him and from others involved in this debate," he added, arguing that the programs are more circumscribed today than they've ever been.

Under the Bush administration, the surveillance programs "did not have any judicial oversight, and frankly, did not have any of the internal administration-based checks and balances that we have today," McDonough explained. "When President Obama came into office in 2009, after being elected in 2008, he was pretty skeptical about the importance of these programs. So he took a very hard look at them, and as a result, we changed many things about how we oversee those programs."

House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a staunch defender of the surveillance programs who is among the lawmakers most fully briefed on their specifics, similarly bemoaned the inaccuracy of the public dialogue.

"The rhetoric you see is so misguided and it creates such the wrong perception," he said on "Face the Nation." "Even on the phone records, where I think most people are upset, we take the business records via court order, and it's just phone numbers - no names, no addresses, put it in a lock box...it's like a phonebook without any names and any addresses in it."

Rogers was asked on CNN's "State of the Union" whether he could assure Americans not implicated in any suspicious activity that nobody is listening to their phone calls.

"Yes, that's absolutely true," he replied. "And I can't tell you how strong we need to make this clear. The NSA is not listening to Americans' phone calls, and it is not monitoring their e-mails. If it did, it's illegal. It's breaking the law."

Rogers said that as Americans become better informed about the restrictions binding the programs - and the number of terrorist plots that have been disrupted by the government's surveillance - they will "come to a different conclusion than all the misleading rhetoric I've heard over the last few weeks."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who played a key role in developing and implementing the expansion of the U.S. government's surveillance authority in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, offered a similar appraisal of the limits of that authority on "Fox News Sunday."

"We have collected a lot of numbers, but they are business records and the phone companies, they have been determined by the Supreme Court not to be private individual records, the way they are oftentimes described by critics," he explained.

"You don't go into that box of numbers, if you will, to look for connections," Cheney said, unless the government believes the call log reflects suspicious activity, such as correspondence between suspected terrorists.

"The allegation is out there that somehow we've got all this personal information on Aunt Fanny or Chris Wallace or whoever it might be," he said. "Not true - that's not the way it works."

  • Jake Miller

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