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Congressman On NSA: Checks And Balances Prevent Abuse


After today's hearing, I spoke with one of the members of the House intelligence committee, Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas. He has defended the NSA's surveillance programs as both legal and vital to security. I asked if anything about the amassing of millions of Americans' phone records troubles him.

REPRESENTATIVE MAC THORNBERRY: I think any time you accumulate a huge amount of data, the key is what are the safeguards for that data's use? And frankly, that's true with big Internet providers that have all our information, as well as the government. The key element here is do you have the checks and balances on how that data would and should be used? If there's one other thing maybe that I do have some concerns about, I think it would helpful for people throughout the country to hear more about what is and isn't done because there is so much misinformation about this.

So the extent to which it can be declassified I think is helpful for people to understand, as long as they also understand declassifying too much gives the enemy your playbook. And so it is that fine balance we're all trying to walk here.

BLOCK: There was this question from a Democratic congressman on the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who asked, why not just use subpoenas to get the phone logs if there is a suspicious number? Why go through this huge dragnet of everyone's information if you could do it in a much more targeted way?

THORNBERRY: Yeah, well, two things. Number one is they don't go through everyone's phone records.

BLOCK: But they do collect them. They do amass them.

THORNBERRY: They - I think the best description of that I've heard is that if you're looking for a needle in the haystack, you first have to have a haystack. For example, once the Boston bombing occurs and you have a specific phone number from the bomber, in order to see whether they have had other people directing or assisting them, you have to have a timeframe to go back and search their phone records.

BLOCK: But why not then just do that, spinning out from that one number as opposed to working from that haystack that you're talking about?

THORNBERRY: Sure. The reason is because the phone companies don't keep that record. If you have that one number, in order to have a database to search you have to have the government keep it. And then you get the safeguards to make sure that you only search for those numbers that you have a connection to terrorism.

BLOCK: As you know, Congressman, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, testified before Congress in March and said, in now notorious words, that the NSA did not wittingly collect data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans. Of course, now with these disclosures he's admitted that that was not entirely truthful.

A skeptic would say, you know, that should just cast doubt on just about any intelligence briefing we might be hearing before Congress. I mean, does that sort of taint, do you think, the reputation of the intelligence community and how much we can trust what they're telling you?

THORNBERRY: Well, I would say a couple things. One is it is always difficult to testify in an open unclassified forum about classified programs. But secondly, I think the thing that stands out here - and you heard it over and over again today in the hearing - is that this is not just going on the word of the NSA that these are how things are done. This is oversight involving all three branches of government. It includes inspector generals who come in check. It includes an audit trail that is checked for every single touch of the database.

So if you look at all the safeguards around here, I think there is ample surety that the American people can say that what you're hearing from all three branches of government is the way it's really done.

BLOCK: Is the message to the American people, though, do you think, you know, trust us on this. We are overseeing this. We're not going to be too transparent about it but we have your interests at stake.

THORNBERRY: Well, there have always been programs related to our national security that have been kept secret, and rightfully so. I mean, you think about the code breakers for German submarines or the Japanese in World War II. So there are always things that there has to be some element of trust in order to prevent the enemy from knowing what you're doing.

And the question is, if you're going to keep some things from the public, do you have a system of checks and balances to make sure that those powers are not abused? And I do think it is incumbent, especially on Congress - and in this case, also the judiciary - to make sure that those checks and balances are working and that we, the other branches, are actively pursuing our oversight role to make sure they're not abused.

BLOCK: Congressman Thornberry, thanks for talking with us.

THORNBERRY: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.