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National Security or Too Much Snooping

Aired October 25, 2013 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, annoying our friends by trying to find our enemies.

ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR, GERMANY: Trust needs to be rebuilt.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Everyone spies on everybody. That's just a fact.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Stephanie Cutter. On the right, S.E. Cupp. In the CROSSFIRE, Jesselyn Radack, who supports fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, and Tommy Vietor, who says the U.S. needs to remain vigilant.

National security or too much snooping? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Stephanie Cutter on the left.

S.E. CUPP, CO-HOST: I'm S.E. Cupp on the right. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Tommy Vietor and Jesselyn Radack.

The first rule of spy club is don't get caught. And America just got caught doing what everybody else is doing. I agree with Senator Marco Rubio, who's comparing the outrage from world leaders to a famous line from the movie "Casablanca."


RUBIO: I think a lot of what you're seeing from these European leaders is for the domestic consumption of their own public, but at the end of the day, everyone knew there was gambling going on in "Casablanca."


CUPP: But, you know, the breadth of this NSA program is something new. Combined with other civil liberty abuses from President Obama's past, I think this administration has a lot of explaining to do.

CUTTER: Well, the program that we were just referring to, the spying of Merkel and others, is a program that was dated back to 2006. So whether it's expanded is an open question. And I think the president's answer is that it's actually not happening anymore. We're not spying on Angela Merkel.

But listen, spying has gone on for a very long time.

CUPP: Yes.

CUTTER: I don't think you can say it's been an expansion or that we're treading new ground there. I think the only difference is that we have someone who is leaking sensitive documents.

CUPP: We just know about it?

CUTTER: We know about it. Unfortunately.

So in the CROSSFIRE tonight, Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, and Jesselyn Radack, who's just back from Moscow where she visited NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Jesselyn, we'll start with you. I understand what whistle- blowers do, and I support that, but it's normally to protect American interests, Americans' well-being and Americans' security. Leaking sensitive documents to show who the United States is spying on, in terms of foreign leaders, what purpose does that have?

How does that strengthen America to tell Germany or France or any other country that we're spying on them, especially when we know that they're spying on us?

JESSELYN RADACK, EDWARD SNOWDEN SUPPORTING: Well, I think most of Snowden's disclosures have dealt with domestic to domestic spying within this country. It's only recently that we learned about the spying on other leaders. And while we've always spied on other countries, we have not been spying on the personal cell phones of other...

CUPP: Right.

CUTTER: How do you know that? How do you know that?

RADACK: Through a number of other clients who are with the CIA and in the intelligence communities, and I mean, obviously, if someone got the cell phone number of Barack Obama or his children, they would probably be prosecuted.

In terms of why is this a problem? Or how does it help Americans? I would say it helps Americans, because it is not fighting terrorism. It actually weakens our position in the war on terrorism, because we rely on our allies in the war on terrorism. And when we can't -- when we weaken that trust by actually tapping their personal cell phones, it's a problem.

CUTTER: You know, though, that -- and having worked in the White House, there are areas where you can't take your cell phone, because it puts sensitive conversations at risk. The Sit Room, the Oval Office, the chief of staff's office, where those sensitive conversations take place, you don't take your cell phone in, because it means people that can listen in on your conversation.

There's also an assumption that the president is being listened in on. So are you suggesting that America should unilaterally disarm here? Because it's happening to us, and us -- spying on -- whether it's our enemies or our allies is something that's gone on for centuries.

RADACK: Oh, I agree, spying has gone on for centuries, both friend and foe. I agree with that. But it certainly has not been the breadth of spying on 35 world leaders...

CUTTER: We should unilaterally disarm, then?

RADACK: I'm not saying we should unilaterally disarm. What do you mean? We should not be spying on personal cell phone devices of presidents and leaders of countries. It's OK to spy on their embassies and their intel. We all expect that.

CUPP: Yes, and let me ask you, Tommy, about this, because I'm actually -- I'm OK with eavesdropping overseas, and I think most Americans are, too. We understand that this is sort of necessary in today's -- in today's world for national security. But do we have the wrong targets? I mean, is the German chancellor really a threat to our national security? Or is she really going to reveal any threats to our national security?

TOMMY VIETOR, FORMER SPOKESMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, I mean, I think one quick point. The first trip I took with President Obama, we went to France as part of a trip. We weren't allowed to take our phones off the plane, because the French did so much collection on them. So, you know, when they're protesting so much these accusations, I think, you know, you take it with a grain of salt.

CUPP: Sure.

VIETOR: I think that a lot of intelligence collection is counterterrorism work, but not all of it. And let's say we are involved in a negotiation over a trade deal with another country. It helps to know their position going in. I mean, that's just how this works.

So Angela Merkel is upset, because there is a special and unique history with intelligence questions and her country, and I completely understand that.

CUPP: Yes.

VIETOR: It is, however, the case that the German intel services collaborate with us on a lot of work, and they probably know that we have collection on people in their country.

CUPP: But how does it help now that you have leaders like Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel publicly decrying this, and saying that there's been a breach of trust. If we want our allies to work with us on Syria, Russia, Iran, any number of issues, the fact is they are publicly complaining. That can't be helpful.

VIETOR: Absolutely. But let me read you a quote: "I'm amazed by the disconcerting naivete. You'd almost think our politicians don't bother to read the reports they get from the intelligence services." That's the head of the French domestic intelligence service. So they know what we're doing. They're trying to weaken our capabilities so that they're strengthened. We're better at this than them, and they're frustrated by it. And I understand that.

Now, we need to collaborate. We need to sort of carve off the issues that we need to work together, trade agreements and other things. I understand they're going to be upset, but like Stephanie said, I mean, this has gone on a long time. It's just been laid bare in history.

CUTTER: And don't you think a part of this -- and Jesselyn weigh in here -- is part of them protecting their politics at home? I mean, they're embarrassed, you know. It's been revealed the United States got their cell-phone number; they were spying on them. They're embarrassed at home.

RADACK: I think the -- more embarrassed. I think the U.S. is more embarrassed at this point, given the reaction of Obama initially denying this, and then the next day saying -- having the White House say, "We really can't say yes or no."

CUPP: And also saying we'll investigate it. I mean, isn't saying, "We'll investigate it" some kind of admission that there's something to look into and maybe correct?

CUTTER: The president also said that it was not currently happening, so...

RADACK: But it could have been happening yesterday. I mean, he parsed his words and said it's not currently happening, meaning today, not happening today. It very well could have been happening yesterday.

CUPP: Francois Hollande has not been in office for seven years. He's relatively new. So Tommy, in 2009, President Obama asked our enemies -- I remember this vividly from his inaugural speech -- to unclench their fists. In return we've rewarded them with unaccountable drone strikes and cyber-attacks. Now we're even at fisticuffs with our allies. Is this soft power? And is it working?

VIETOR: I think the clenched fists line was specific to Iran in particular about negotiations. We've been at loggerheads over their nuclear program for a long time. We wanted to start a conversation with them. So I think that's a good thing. I think you're actually seeing that start to happen. I'm very hopeful that we can get to an agreement.

CUPP: That's a whole other CROSSFIRE.

VIETOR: I forget the other part of the question, because I got led down this path. I mean, I think, you know, Barack Obama came into an office at the time when the Iraq war had destroyed our credibility around the globe. And he and Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time trying to fix that and improve the way America was seen in foreign countries. You saw this in Asia, particularly where countries were looking to China instead of the U.S. He's improved that image dramatically, and he's done a great job working...

CUPP: But it's so incoherent. He's ending wars but in favor of drone strikes. He's ended torture and rendition but in favor of extra-judicial killings. He wants transparency but prosecutes whistle-blowers. I can't make sense of this. And would you be defending this under Bush?

VIETOR: I didn't work for Bush for a reason. Barack Obama came to office and said he'd end the Iraq war. And he did. He said he would refocus on where al Qaeda is, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he has.

CUPP: So that makes all of it OK?


CUTTER: He also said that he was going to protect this country and he was going to be the responsible commander in chief. And that's what he's done. Now, I want to just switch topics for just a second.

CUPP: Wait, no...

RADACK: No, wait a second. I wanted to respond to that, because Barack Obama came into office praising whistle-blowers as patriotic and brave and necessary to keep our democratic society, in being a free -- our democratic society on the right track and in favor of openness and transparency.

And his actions have been quite the opposite by having this war on whistle-blowers, nine people prosecuted for telling the truth. Prosecuted under the Espionage Act as being enemies of the state.

VIETOR: OK. This kiddy-porn loving FBI analyst that coughed up there was an IED in Yemen that we've been working on for a long time, I'm very glad that individual will go to jail for a long time.

RADACK: I don't know who you're talking about.

VIETOR: The Yemeni plot was a...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... I'm not even thinking about...

CUPP: There are benefits to surveillance, of course, but the argument we're trying to have here, the philosophical argument we're trying to have is, at the expense of what civil liberties.

VIETOR: It's a balance, absolutely. CUPP: There is.

CUTTER: Let's talk about part of that balance. Let's talk about whistle-blowers for a second, because that's what Jesselyn brought up. And I want to bring up the most famous whistle-blower that we're dealing with right now, if you can call it whistle-blowing, and that's Edward Snowden. You just got back from a trip to Russia where you met with Edward Snowden. Let's listen to what secretary -- former Secretary of State Albright said about him just yesterday.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Glorifying Snowden is a mistake. I think that what he has done is a criminal act, and it has hurt us very, very badly.


CUTTER: So whistle-blowing serves a purpose. I understand that. I supported you when you were a whistle-blower.

However, what Snowden has done is take very, very sensitive information about programs, with the intent of protecting the American people -- Now, we can talk about what balance you have to strike -- and he took them to foreign sources. He gave them to foreign governments. He put America at risk.

So in terms of -- well, the world knows exactly what our programs are now. And we also know that some of our enemies, al Qaeda and others, have changed some of their tactics, because they now know what they're doing.

RADACK: I don't know about that.

CUTTER: My question -- well, there's lots of information out there. But my question for you is this: If you want to be a responsible whistle-blower, if you want to actually effect change, isn't there a way to do it when you're not putting America actually at risk? I mean, you did it the right way. You went to an American source.

RADACK: Well, I think actually in Edward's case, first of all, I disagree that he harmed America. We said that about Bradley Manning, the government said that, and America produced no harm report during the trial whatsoever, no damage assessment. Whistle-blowers are always accused, including Tom Drake, of harming national security in America. Tom Drake was another NSA whistle-blower.

You normally go through channels, which is exactly what another client of mine, Thomas Drake, did. He went to his boss. He went to the NSA general counsel, the Defense Department inspector general, and both -- and both intel committees in Congress.

CUPP: But here's where I'm with Stephanie. Snowden didn't do that. He didn't do any of it. RADACK: Because he studied the case of Tom Drake and realized -- in Tom Drake's case, not only did it achieve nothing, but the government turned around and prosecuted him for espionage in a case that collapsed in spectacular fashion, because his allegations were substantiated and because he never retained...

CUTTER: So why not go to Rand Paul, who is a critic of this program, who's long been a critic of the administration's policies, or Ron Wyden, who is -- Senator Ron Wyden, who's been trying to change this policy that was voted on in Congress? There was a responsible way to do this. He didn't do that.

RADACK: He didn't do that, because, for example...

CUPP: He ran, and he's hiding.

RADACK: Actually, I think he did the only thing he conceivably could have done. He would have been put in jail immediately, as we know.

CUPP: That's the consequence. That's the consequence...


CUTTER: If you feel that strongly about it.

RADACK: Let me answer Stephanie's question first, which is in terms of going to Ron Wyden, we did go to Ron Wyden with other NSA whistle-blowers, and it accomplished nothing. We went through him with a secret interpretation on 215, and nothing happened. And Snowden knew he would be targeted rather than going after NSA's illegalities for which no one wants to pay the price.

CUTTER: So we're going to have to go to break, and I want everybody to just take a minute and remember something. We're forgetting about something very important in this debate, and that's the purpose of these NSA programs to begin with.

So next, the number of terror attacks we've actually prevented.


CUTTER: In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Tommy Vietor and Jesselyn Radack.

This week, leaders around the world are showing faux outrage over spy programs they've always known existed. But here's the real truth. This program has prevented terrorist attacks. Let's listen to what the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, says about this program.


GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, DIRECTOR, NSA: In recent years, these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe, to include helping prevent a terrorist -- the potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11.


CUTTER: So, Jesselyn, that includes about 13 times on domestic soil. Senator Feinstein in the -- who is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had presented an op-ed last week in the "Wall Street Journal," where she said -- and she was citing testimony from FBI director and others, that if these programs had been in place, that we could have very likely been aware of the domestic plot for 9/11 and prevented it.

So my question to you is just isn't there a purpose for these programs, in terms of protecting American lives? Is there a purpose?

RADACK: If they were actually protecting American lives, there would be, but that clip you ran of Alexander was from June. Later he was recently grilled by Leahy in October and said that there was only one plot that was detected, and that involved a man sending a thousand dollars to some charity. So that is one. And for $8,000...

CUTTER: A charity that actually attacked the Kenyan mall.

RADACK: But 54 is very different from one. And that's a big lie...

CUTTER: Are you suggesting that Senator Feinstein lied last week when she printed the op-ed that cited the 54?

RADACK: Yes, I think she's misleading.

CUTTER: The head of the NSA...

RADACK: Yes, I do. Clapper admitted lying. He actually gave the least untruthful answer. And then he wrote a letter of apology, saying, "I thought I was answering a different question." So I do think people have been dissembling here.

CUTTER: OK. Let's talk about -- OK, so the intelligence community is lying to the American people. But that being said, president and Congress are trying to make reforms. In late August, the Senate Intelligence Committee is considering some serious reforms next week. So is the House. The president's independent commission is due out with a report. It was supposed to be out next week, but it's been delayed a couple of weeks because of the government shutdown.

To increase transparency, to put some constraints on certain sections of the law, to make the FISA court, which is the body that approves these secret surveillances, more transparent for the American people. If reforms are put in place, is this something that you would support?

RADACK: Absolutely. I support reforms, and I think Edward Snowden does, too. Tomorrow there's a rally from 12 to 3, of thousands, or tens of thousands of people, a rally against mass surveillance, organized by Rainey Reitman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. So, I mean there are -- I'm completely in favor of reform, as long as it's meaningful.

CUPP: Let's talk about public opinion. I want to show you a poll. It's an ABC/"Washington Post" poll. It asks, "Do you think the NSA surveillance of telephone call records and Internet traffic does or does not intrude on some Americans' privacy rights?" Seventy-four percent say it does intrude.

Now, frankly, when it comes to national security, I don't care what the American public thinks. I really don't. I think this is something for experts to sort of mete out. But should we care? Should we care? Should the president care that the American population feels like this is an intrusion?

VIETOR: He does care. And I talked to him about this. He cares on a personal level about the balance between civil liberties and security. He cares about what the American people think. I think that's why you've seen them take action, reform some of these laws, set up this commission, people like Cass Epstein (ph), who is no...

CUPP: We all know how aggressive commissions are.

VIETOR: Well, I think he's taken a number of steps to try to find that right balance.

CUPP: But doesn't it seem like he takes step when he gets caught? Like the NSA, the drone program, the mantra of this was "What drone program?" And then it all came out, and then he had to sort of take accountability. He set up a commission to look at it. Nothing's changed about our drone program.

VIETOR: But hold on. Hold on. The president of the United States isn't going to walk out one day and be like, "Hey, guys. Here's this highly-classified thing we've been doing. Let me just, like, blab about it to you."

Of course public disclosure of these programs has led to more public debate about them. I think it's sort of self-evident. But I think he's someone who behind the scenes has been reforming these programs and procedures, and the law.

RADACK: Yes. I've heard nothing about those reforms. In fact, he's...

CUPP: Why is he shouting them?

RADACK: Yes. He tried to say these reforms are already underway, and there's been no evidence of that. And to say that he cares about these activities, he expanded the secrecy regime put in place by Bush, and he expanded that by an order of magnitude. So while he says he's putting reforms in place, to create a commission that you put under the DNI, that's not meaningful reform.

CUPP: Well, I've got to -- I've got to bring up -- I've got to bring up some recent revelations, because they are awesome. A couple of interesting stories. One, a high level White House aide was fired -- Jofi Joseph -- after anonymously tweeting criticisms about the administration, from Benghazi to Susan Rice's clothing choices.

General Hayden was apparently leaking to a reporter about black sites and rendition on an Acela train this week. That's why I always take the quiet car.

And of course, Edward Snowden seems to have an endless cache of information about what the NSA is up to.

I ask both of you this: can anyone keep a secret anymore?

VIETOR: No. That was my experience at the White House. It drove me insane. And I was there when we had the first meeting with "The New York Times," who brought us the WikiLeaks cache.

CUPP: Oh, yes.

VIETOR: And said, "Hey, we're about to unload these 2,000 documents on you guys. Figure out what's in there."

And, you know, the speed with which information can be saved and moved and transferred has made this next to impossible. And I think the problem I had with Edward Snowden is I think there's a meaningful debate we should have constantly about domestic surveillance.

CUPP: Yes.

VIETOR: I think when you go to China and you start talking about the way we collect on the Chinese; when you talk about how we collect on a Russian head of state, I have a very hard time accepting a description of that as whistle-blowing or in the national interests in any way.


VIETOR: Or an appropriate thing to do. I just think it's against the law.

RADACK: Well, getting back to your original question, can we keep any secrets? I think certain things should definitely be secret. Sources and methods, troop movements, nuclear design information. And guess what? Those things are largely...

CUTTER: Unfortunately, we didn't do that with Edward Snowden.

RADACK: Those things are largely being kept secret. The problem is, we have so much secrecy. We have massive over-classification that even President Obama has recognized.

VIETOR: Absolutely.

RADACK: And he ended up classifying 77 million more documents in his first year than Bush had in seven. So I think having too many secrets makes it -- and having over-classification... VIETOR: It's a problem.

RADACK: Everything's a secret. Very hard to keep it.

CUPP: OK. Stay here. Next we "Ceasefire." Is there anything the two of us, maybe even the four of us...


CUPP: ... can agree on?

We also want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Do you care if the U.S. spies on other countries? Tweet yes or no using #CROSSFIRE. We'll have the results after the break.


CUPP: We're back with Tommy Vietor and Jesselyn Radack. Now let's call a "Ceasefire."

Now I think you guys agreed that secrecy is a problem. And we need some reforms to do something about it.

But I also think the four of us just stumbled onto a little known fact, that we all have Boston roots and are therefore watching very excitedly this World Series.

VIETOR: Yes. And I think you just made everyone watching at home hate us all.

RADACK: Or love us.

VIETOR: Or you don't really care.

RADACK: And where your ratings might fall in certain states.

CUPP: Your husband's from Boston. He's a Red Sox fan.

RADACK: Absolutely.

CUPP: You're from Boston.


CUPP: You're a Red Sox fan.

CUTTER: Our kids are Red Sox fans.

CUPP: I am from Boston, and through this series, I am a Red Sox fan. And what do we think? In five?

VIETOR: I can't predict. It will jinx them.

CUPP: Stephanie wants it to be in six, because she has tickets to game six.

CUTTER: No, I would be very happy if it was in five; however, I will be there in person to support them in game six.

CUPP: You want a six. You want a six. Throw another game, Red Sox.

VIETOR: You want a ticket sale. What's the problem with that?

RADACK: They tend to make it a nail biter so I think you'll get to see your sixth game.


CUTTER: OK. Thanks to Tommy Vietor and Jesselyn Radack.

Go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question: "Do you care if the U.S. spies on other countries?" Right now 40 percent of you say yes; 60 percent of you say no. The debate continues online at as well as Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Stephanie Cutter.

CUPP: From the right, I'm S.E. Cupp.

Join us Monday for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): "OUTFRONT" next, the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

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BURNETT: Four pages of grand jury testimony released. Does it reveal her killer? We'll ask the Ramseys' lawyer.

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BURNETT: But there is a better way to cut. An "OUTFRONT" investigation.

And prescription for murder?

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Let's go "OUTFRONT."


BURNETT: Good Friday evening, everyone. I'm Erin Burnett.

"OUTFRONT" tonight, an explosive revelation in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case.