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Wednesday, February 12,2014

Bile and bluster

Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers’ take on the NSA scandal lacks evidence and support

by Mickey Hirten
Honestly now, wouldn’t you think that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee would have better, well, intelligence?

But then you’d be overestimating mid- Michigan’s own Mike Rogers, Republican congressman from the 8th District, cheerleader-in-chief for the nation’s spy agencies.

Apoplectic about the National Security Agency classified document scandal, Rogers has charged — and admittedly without any evidence — that Edward Snowden plotted with the Russians to steal government secrets. He hinted only that there were “clues.”

“Let me just say this. I believe there’s a reason he ended up in the hands, the loving arms, of an FSB agent in Moscow,” Rogers said. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Ah, for the easy enmities of the Cold War.

Snowden called the allegation absurd, noting that he first fled to Hong Kong and then spent 40 days in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. “Spies get treated better than that,” he said.

But what does it say about our nation’s intelligence capabilities that with its billions of phone records, non-stop listening and legions of spies an official as connected and demonstrative as Rogers doesn’t know for sure whether Russians conspired with Snowden?

News about the massive NSA document leak began in June, and Snowden didn’t land in Russia until July. The agencies overseen by Rogers have had eight months to investigate Snowden, and it no doubt has been exhaustive. The chairman of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mike Flynn, said he did not “have any information” that Snowden was under the influence of Russian intelligence.

All of which suggests that evidence of a Russian conspiracy doesn’t really matter to Rogers.

As a former FBI agent, Rogers’ background clearly provides some measure of expertise in the intelligence realm. But he seems to have traded oversight for advocacy, balance for belligerence.

Last week he tried to bait the director of the FBI, James B. Comey, into saying that journalists “selling” Snowden documents were committing crimes. His target, though unnamed, was American journalist Glen Greenwald, who has worked with Snowden and news organizations that have published articles about the documents he stole. He denies the charge.

Comey didn’t bite and in measured terms reminded Rogers that “First Amendment” journalism protections complicated judgments about criminality.

And what caused Rogers to suspect that Greenwald was selling Snowden documents? It didn’t come from the CIA or FBI investigations, or from NSA phone record sweeps. Rather the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said his information came from “other nations’ press services.”

Snowden stole NSA documents, no doubt about that, and if convicted will be guilty of a crime, whatever his motives. But NSA let it happen. It might as well have stored its documents with Target. And it wasn’t even a slick crime. The New York Times reported that Snowden used an inexpensive off-the-shelf commercial web crawler to prowl through and capture classified reports.

This incompetent performance by our premier intelligence service is worthy of Rogers’ outrage. But it hasn’t happened.

And not everyone is on board. Arizona Sen. John McCain has roundly criticized sloppy congressional oversight of intelligence operations and has introduced legislation to establish a select committee to deal with, among other issues, “the extent and sufficiency of oversight of such programs, operations, and activities by Congress and the Executive Branch; and the need for greater transparency and more effective congressional oversight of intelligence community activities.” McCain also would require greater transparency by NSA.

This, of course, rankles members of the established oversight committees, many of whom rank defense and related industry contributions among their top- 10 campaign contributors.

Snowden has defended his actions, saying Americans needed to understand the vastness of NSA’s data gathering operation. Maybe the congressional intelligence committees knew that NSA was subverting American companies’ commercial software, accumulating vast amounts of data on American’s phone calls and emails, listening to the phone conversations of allied leaders.

But we didn’t. And we wouldn’t if it weren’t for Snowden.

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