Edward Snowden in Guardian image
MINNEAPOLIS -- Somewhere in Hong Kong is a man who's at the center of the latest debate over how far-reaching the U-S government's electronic data collection should be.
Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who works for a private company in Hawaii, leaked what he said are classified documents detailing how raw phone call records are collected as raw data for use in future counter-terrorism efforts.
"I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wire tap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge to even the President if I had a personal email," Snowden told The Guardian, in an interview taped in Hong Kong.
He told the British newspaper last week that Verizon Wireless had allowed records to be mined by the National Security Agency. Snowden also said that as a private contractor he could easily expose or compromise any covert CIA operative any place on the plane.
He agreed to let The Guardian and The Washington Post identify him by name.
The White House said that, although information may be harvested in bulk, it's not mined for specific phone records until U.S. agencies have a legitimate reason to suspect that phone account is connected to a potential terrorist overseas.
"This is something that's not our place to decide," Snowden told a reporter for The Guardian.
"The public needs to decide whether these programs or policies are right or wrong."
Twin Cities defense attorney Jack Rice, a former CIA officer, said it's unlikely that as a private contractor that Snowden could have exposed covert operatives.
"One thing in the intelligence community that's critical is compartmentalization -- the idea that you know what you know, and you don't need to know what the other guy knows unless you need to know it," Rice told KARE.
"I had access to certain things, but there was a bunch of stuff I knew nothing about because it wasn't my job. So for him to turn around a say I know everything, once you get the keys to the kingdom, you can open every door? That simply isn't the case," Rice added.
Rice said that regardless of how Snowden sees himself, there will be government prosecutors and judges willing to hold him accountable for releasing the documents in question.
He asserted that many Americans are outraged by the extent of the data collection efforts because they can't be sure that the federal government is leveling with them about the nature and scope of the intelligence gathering program.
"The problem that you get -- and we have seen this in the past, not just from this president but from the last one, again Republican, Democrat doesn't matter -- that you'll get one story until the next story comes out," Rice remarked.
Eric Schwartz, the dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said that many elected officials had knowledge of the phone record collection program.
"What's ironic about this one is the information that was leaked was known by the Congress," Schwartz, a former State Department official and Congressional staff member, told KARE.
"You can fairly ask the Congress whether they have given the administration or given the government too much authority here," he said.
"I think that's a legitimate question the American people have a right to debate."
Minnesota Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison said it appears too much information is classified because most Americans can handle the idea that people connected to terrorism will have their phone records intercepted.
On the other hand, he said most members of Congress -- including himself -- had no idea that so many records of law abiding phone users were being tracked and put into long-term storage.
"There's no reason why people who have no suspicion and no connection with terrorism ought to have their phone records monitored by the government," Ellison told KARE. "That shouldn't be."
Hong Kong has a fairly strong extradition treaty with the U.S., so the odds are high that Snowden, if taken into custody there, would be sent back to face formal charges.
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