Former director of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden, another panelist, said that while Snowden’s actions were illegal, the American people are better off knowing what methods the NSA is using, rather than being in the dark. However, he added that without the intelligence collection from the NSA, the U.S. government would have less information about what the threat actors are doing. “When you have lawful tools, be careful about taking them off the table,” he said.
In addition to Snowden, the panel also discussed the recommendations that President Barack Obama’s review group made about the NSA surveillance program in December. Clarke was a member of the group, which recommended that the NSA discontinue amassing phone data on millions of Americans, warning that there was a “lurking danger of abuse” behind such a program.
During the discussion at RSA, Clarke elaborated on the review group’s recommendations. “We have to have a strong intelligence capability to stop [an attack], and to protect our allies around the world,” he said. However, “the question is, can we have that strong intelligence capability in a way that is more transparent and creates less collateral damage?”
This transparency might be furthered through legislation recommended in the group’s report. One proposed bill would require that information about surveillance programs be made public, while another would mandate that phone companies publicly disclose any information requests they receive from the government. “Such information might disclose the number of orders that providers have received, the broad categories of information produced, and the number of users whose information has been produced,” states the report.
Panelists at RSA also addressed the reaction of foreign governments to the NSA surveillance program, many of whom expressed outrage at the notion that their leaders were being spied on. Clarke and Hayden both noted that most major nations have surveillance programs that listen in on foreign leaders, and that the United States is far from alone in the way it gathers intelligence on other countries.
In late March, the Obama administration announced that it was indeed implementing a key recommendation from the advisory group when it proposed the NSA end its telephony metadata collection program. The President proposed that, rather than keeping a running list of data from Americans’ phone calls, the government would ask permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when investigating the length and time of a specific phone call or series of calls that officials suspect may have a connection to terrorism.