NSA IG Gets It Mostly Right on Snowden

by Fred Fleitz

Politico reported this week that NSA Inspector General George Ellard slammed Edward Snowden during a Georgetown University panel on Tuesday, saying that “Snowden could have come to me.” Ellard said Snowden would have been given the same protections as other NSA employees who file approximately 1,000 complaints per year and that his complaint would have led to an independent assessment on the constitutionality of the metadata program.

Ellard also insisted that “allowing people who have taken an oath to protect the Constitution, to protect these national-security interests, simply to violate or break that oath, is unacceptable.”

I agree with these comments. Snowden has still not explained why he did not bother to use established NSA channels to raise his concerns. Of course it is hard to conceive of a legitimate whistleblowing complaint that would justify stealing 1.7 million classified documents and fleeing to China and Russia.

Unfortunately, Ellard weakened his case when he said if Snowden had filed a complaint with the NSA IG, it would have attempted to explain to him that the metadata program was legal. If Snowden was not convinced, Ellard said NSA would then have allowed him to speak with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees where Ellard thinks he would have found “a welcoming audience” in the Senate Intelligence Committee.

These comments indicate that NSA and the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community are still clueless about how to deal with the Snowden leaks. Ellard should have said that although NSA expects its employees to follow the law and go through formal channels, if they feel they cannot do so, they should go to the intelligence committees, not the press.

I know from my time at the CIA and on the House Intelligence Committee staff that some intelligence officers ignore their agency’s rules on communications with Congress and provide classified information under the table to the congressional oversight committees in a whistleblowing capacity. Ellard must know this too.

The idea that NSA would “allow” Snowden to go to Congress if it could not disabuse him of his concerns reflects a pointless separation of powers struggle. Obviously the White House doesn’t want intelligence officers briefing Congress on their own. However, I believe the executive branch giving up a little turf to Congress for a small number of whistleblowing complaints is a small price to pay given the alternative of multi-billion-dollar intelligence programs being ruined by disgruntled intelligence officers like Snowden who don’t have the courage to approach their IGs.

As I explained in an NRO article last August, “Preventing Future Snowdens,” the intelligence oversight committees should be designated as safe harbors for would-be intelligence whistleblowers so they can report their concerns to Congress without fear of retaliation and to discourage them from leaking national-security information to the news media. I note in my article that this is not a new idea and was almost approved by Congress in 1998.

I agree with George Ellard that the inspectors general of U.S. intelligence agencies generally do a good job and handle thousands of complaints. But more must be done to provide an alternative to leaking to the news media by would-be intelligence whistleblowers who refuse to file their complaints through the system. Some conscientious intelligence officers are already doing this behind the backs of their agencies. It is time to legalize this process.

— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and House Intelligence Committee staff member, is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy and Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com.

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