Westmoreland supports data collection
by SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
The federal government’s data collection programs that were revealed by a contract employee for the National Security Agency on June 6 have helped foil several terrorist attacks, and a lot of information that has been spread about them isn’t accurate, according to Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a Cowetan who represents Georgia’s third district in the U.S. House of Representatives and serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“It’s not true to call it a surveillance program. It’s a program to gather data, not knowing whose it was,” Westmoreland said Friday during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
“The things that are coming out about the program are not true,” Westmoreland said. “Is there a program? Sure. It is being handled like” leaker Edward Snowden said it is? “No,” Westmoreland said. “Is it being handled like a lot of the people on television and some of the citizens are responding to it? No.”
Westmoreland has been aware of the programs for years, though he doesn’t know every detail. “That would be hard, because there are a lot of them,” he said.
Westmoreland’s committee and the House Judiciary Committee and their counterparts in the Senate are the committees that provide oversight of the programs.
Neither program is new. The collection of “metadata” from cell phone calls was authorized under the “business records” provision of The Patriot Act of 2001. The PRISM computer data program was created in 2008 and reauthorized at the end of 2012 through the Foreign Intelligence Service Act Amendments Act Reauthorization Act.
Things have been busy on Capitol Hill since the information was leaked.
“As you can imagine, when some of the first reports came out about it, a lot of members [of Congress] were very upset, including myself and including members of our committee,” Westmoreland said. “Because we were just as shocked by some of the accusations that were coming out of this young man” as others were.
“I feel like he really did a disservice” to the country, Westmoreland added. “Not only has he exposed this important and helpful program that was being used to stop terrorist attacks, but, more importantly, he did it in a crappy way. He only released very limited information about it. He lied about certain aspects.
“He has now misled the American people to make them trust their government even less” than they already do, Westmoreland said.
After the disclosures, the Select Committee on Intelligence “wanted to have hearings to make sure that we knew exactly what was going on and that it was what we thought was going on,” he said. They held classified information sessions, and members of Congress were invited to ask questions. “We would share with them any details they wanted to know, just to make sure they could keep fact from fiction.”
There’s “nothing illegal” about the data gathering programs, according to Westmoreland.
“People are calling this young man a whistleblower and a hero.
“This was not a whistleblower. This was an act of treason,” Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland received a report Friday saying there are already signs Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations are changing the way they operate in light of the revelations.
Westmoreland said the phone call data is just the phone numbers, and it only comes into play if the government is looking at a terrorist organization outside the United States.
“Let’s say they find a cell phone that Osama bin Laden had and they run all the numbers on it” and some match numbers in the metadata provided by the companies, Westmoreland said as an example. Investigators could then seek a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as FISA court or FISC.
With the original data collected “they just have the number. They don’t know who it belongs to, what state it is in … they build the case. They have to go back and get additional warrants to look further into it.”
Westmoreland said the computer data tracks ISP addresses and it’s basically the same process.
Investigators could look at the websites bin Laden, for instance, visited, and then try to find other ISP addresses that visited the same sites, said Leslie Shedd, Westmoreland’s director of communications. If they found the ISP of an American teenager and investigated further and found most of his Internet surfing was innocuous, “then that would probably be it,” Westmoreland said. “But if they saw that his ISP was going to some terrorist group, they would probably go to the next step.”
The NSA is in the process of declassifying some information about foiled terror plots to “show the American people how successful this program has been,” Shedd said. The director of the NSA said “dozens” of plots have been foiled.
One was a threat to set off backpack bombs in the New York City subway, which could have caused thousands of casualties.
During President George W. Bush’s term, “everybody said ‘he has kept us safe for eight years.’ One of the reasons we haven’t had an attack” is the data collection programs, Westmoreland said.
The congressman understands people are concerned. “Right now, people do not have any confidence in the government,” he said. “It is scary to think that your government is watching. The way this looks is horrible … nobody is going to be thrilled about this.”
But he is totally comfortable with the programs.
“When it was first brought out I had some of the same concerns that anybody else would have,” but as he learned more about it, he wasn’t worried.
“You can’t listen to anybody’s phone call,” he said.
The data collection law has “gone through every branch of government. It has been reviewed. It has very strict scrutiny and oversight,” he said. And it is “continually having to be reviewed.”