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How Snowden's Revelations Impact Intelligence Collection Efforts

07/26/2013 - 

The move towards more constraints and more public oversight of U.S. intelligence gathering procedures sparked by Edward Snowden’s revelations is not in the United States’ best interests if it wishes to avoid intelligence failures, according to a former government intelligence community official who spoke on the issue at a panel on terrorism and intelligence.

The discussion, “Terrorism and Intelligence: Political, Legal, and Strategic Challenges,” was hosted by the Washington, D.C., Potomac Institute for Policy Studies to explore issues arising from Snowden’s disclosures, including the now public collection by the National Security Agency (NSA) of U.S. citizen’s phone record metadata.

Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to continue to allow the NSA to collect this data, but the risk that such authority could be curtailed due to public outrage remains.

The problem is that we are having “a debate in public that’s not helpful on either side,” said Dr. Donald Kerr, former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, who was the keynote speaker at the event. One problem, noted Kerr, who has held several key positions in the intelligence community, including serving as the assistant director of the FBI, is that the debate lacks “a clear discussion about the risks and benefits and constraints that attend the various activities that are being discussed.”

Another problem may be that the public perceives the threat against which these efforts are directed as increasingly remote. Kerr, who has seen the effects of a terrorist attack firsthand more than once, sees the threat as ever present. He told attendees that he joined the FBI soon after two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa in 1998. “Face to face with where over 200 people died. It’s something you don't forget,” he said.

He was also in charge of investigating the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. “That to me was a turning point,” he said. But it took 9-11 to get the rest of the country and the world to see the threat the way that Kerr and other insiders did. Post 9-11, he explained, not only did the United States step up its own intelligence efforts, but other governments in “tens of other countries worldwide...quietly and effectively helped to fight worldwide terrorism that both threatens them and also continues to threaten the United States.” But those relationships “are severely threatened” by Snowden’s disclosures, which have been amplified by the press and others, he said. The problem, at a minimum, is that “When other governments are forced by their media to disclose what they know and what they do, it creates awkwardness,” he said.

Kerr emphasized that all the methods that the NSA has used to keep track of telephone records and metadata are legal and have been approved by Congress. But, he said, intelligence gathering works best when it is kept secret and not highly visible.

Gen. (Ret) Alfred Gray, the 29th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, who also spoke at the event, agreed with Kerr’s sentiments and discussed that while more oversight might be favorable to some Americans, it would hinder the intelligence community’s ability to collect crucial data to keep the nation safe.

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