There's been a vigorous debate over the fate of Edward Snowden, who leaked classified details about the activities of the National Security Agency. Some believe he started an important debate over privacy and security. David Greene talks to former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker, who believes having that debate so openly is dangerous.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This week we've been considering the fate of Edward Snowden. The former contractor at the National Security Agency is facing charges after he leaked classified details about surveillance programs. Yesterday we heard from a legal expert who believes that Snowden deserves clemency and that his actions inspired an important public debate about privacy and security.
Today we hear another view. Stewart Baker was general counsel for the NSA in the early '90s. He joined us in our Washington studios. Stewart Baker, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming in.
STEWART BAKER: It's a pleasure.
GREENE: So the government has some pretty serious charges against Edward Snowden. Do you think they're appropriate?
BAKER: Yeah. He did the crime. He should do the time. And I think he knew what he was doing. He portrayed it to all of us as an act of civil disobedience in which he took responsibility for what he had done. He should've - and I think did - understand that it was going to be treated as a serious crime.
GREENE: Was there any other way he could've started this debate? Or was that something that he just had to do if this was a debate he felt was necessary?
BAKER: Well, he certainly didn't need to steal thousands of documents to reveal this program. He could've stolen one or two.
GREENE: If he had stopped there - as you said, if he had released just a couple documents - would you feel differently than you do? Like that perhaps these charges should not be as strong and perhaps he should be shown some leniency?
BAKER: In light of the debate, I think I might feel differently. At this point he has created a debate that makes it clear that his reaction to what he knew is similar to a lot of other people's in the country. And disclosing this and getting that debate going is something that even the president has said that he welcomes the debate. I don't know...
GREENE: The president appointed a panel to look at changes in the NSA in the wake of this.
BAKER: So he would be in a different position, but I don't think that that was ever what he wanted to stop with. I think - and certainly the journalists that he has provided this to have no intention of stopping there. They're out to do the maximum damage, I think, to the National Security Agency, and probably to the United States.
GREENE: Many of the people who think that Snowden should be shown some leniency say that as much information as he has put out there, and as much as people in the government talk about how damaging it is, that no one has provided examples that he has actually damaged the United States and threaten our national security.
BAKER: Well, I'll give you one example that I think is a sort of slightly odd one, but even the people who care about privacy should be concerned about this. The recently released an entire catalog of exploits that the National Security Agency makes available to its intelligence operatives, so that if they've got a particular target, they can choose from hundreds of ways of getting access to them. Pretty...
GREENE: What do you mean by exploits?
BAKER: They will say: If you have access to this guy and you can get him to buy or accept a USB cable from him - just a simple USB cable like we all have 10 of - this USB cable will collect all of this crucial information and broadcast it to you. There are dozens of these exploits that have now been disclosed. The entire catalog has been made available.
There are probably 30 governments who are going through that catalog right now saying: I did not you could do that. And saying: Find somebody who'll give me one of these. Now there is a, sort of, proof of concept for every single one of those attacks. That means it's going to inspire not particularly attractive governments around the world to develop all of these tools that the United States put in an enormous amount of effort and expense into developing.
Now, thanks to Snowden, authoritarian governments all around the world are going to have new tools and our tools are going to be less effective. That I think is sort of a surprising but very damaging consequence of just one leak.
GREENE: Whatever happens to Edward Snowden, is the debate that he started a good one for this country to have?
BAKER: Frankly, I would have preferred we not have it because we have disclosed the existence of this program which will make it easier for people to get around it, or to avoid it. The period...
GREENE: The phone records program, we're talking about or...
BAKER: Yes, exactly.
BAKER: So when that's the problem. You can have these debates, of course. But if you debate intelligence programs in the clear, the chances are they're not particularly effective programs, after they've been debated in that fashion. So I think it's a very damaging debate to have, but we're having it.
It is important in the long run that people have some sense of what their government is doing in their name, in order to protect them, and for there to be support for that, as a result of a debate. And so, while I wouldn't have chosen to have this debate, I think we ought to have it and that's why I'm participating in it.
GREENE: Stewart Baker, thanks for coming in. I appreciate it.
GREENE: Stewart Baker is a former general counsel for the National Security Agency.
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