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The Situation Room

Special Report: Traitor or Hero?: Inside the NSA Leak; How Leaker Got Access to Secrets; Is U.S. Less Safe Now?; Inside the NSA

Aired June 10, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. This is THE SITUATION ROOM special report.

"Traitor or Hero? Inside the NSA Leak."

We're on the trail of the man who admits he exposed some of America's top-secret spying programs. This hour, we have new details about Edward Snowden, his life, his motives, and his great escape. We're in Hong Kong, where Snowden has been in hiding planning his next move, while U.S. officials seek justice and privacy advocates cheer him on.

Plus, the furious debate over one of the worst intelligence leaks in U.S. history. Did Snowden put Americans in danger or defend their rights?

Right now, former intelligence contract worker Edward Snowden is a wanted man, even though he hasn't been charged with any crime yet. It's been less than 24 hours since he was publicly identified. He talked openly to the newspaper "The Guardian" about leaking details of the U.S. government's classified surveillance programs, calling them a threat to Americans' freedom.


EDWARD SNOWDEN, LEAKED DETAILS OF U.S. SURVEILLANCE: The NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default.

It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyzes them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time, simply because that's the easiest, most efficient, and most valuable way to achieve -- while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they're collecting your communications to do so.


BLITZER: Snowden apparently had been planning to drop that bombshell for some time, fleeing from a life he describes as paradise to a hideout in Hong Kong.

We have in-depth coverage of his journey, the secrets he exposed, and his possible punishment.

Anna Coren is standing by in Hong Kong. Brian Todd is in Maryland.

But let's go to CNN's Miguel Marquez. He's in Hawaii right now, where Snowden was living until a few weeks ago.

Miguel, what are you learning?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, typically, we are good as reporters at finding out information about people, but Mr. Snowden left a very small digital footprint. We did find out though something about his politics. In 2012, he gave to the Ron Paul political campaign, this as we're finding out about his last days in Hawaii.


MARQUEZ (voice-over): It was this quiet Honolulu suburb where Edward Snowden lived with his girlfriend for a year.

(on camera): Can you believe that he's involved in this?


DR. ANGEL CUNAN, NEIGHBOR: (INAUDIBLE) I wouldn't believe he's involved with this kind of scenery. And then somebody come in here this morning and said, your next-door neighbor did something about the government leaking information. I said what?

MARQUEZ: He was working here, the Honolulu office of government contractor and global consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

In a statement, the company said he had been there for less than three months.

SNOWDEN: But over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it.

And the more you talk about it, the more you are ignored, the more you're told it's not a problem, until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.

MARQUEZ: Snowden told "The Guardian" he had copied documents at Booz Allen Hamilton, but exactly when is unclear.

We know he asked for time off and moved out of his home here in early May. According to "The Guardian," he told his boss at Booz Allen Hamilton he needed a couple of weeks off for medical treatment as he suffered from epilepsy. He left Hawaii for Hong Kong on May 20. It appears no one was the wiser about Snowden's abrupt departure.

Last Wednesday, police came to his home to check on his welfare, as he had not reported back to work. They found an empty house cleaned and prepped for sale.

(on camera): Last Wednesday, you're putting it on the market. The police show up.


MARQUEZ: Tell me about that?

HEIM: Well, they just came to the door and they asked if I knew where the former tenant was, and that he was missing from work and he had a medical condition, and that was all. It just seemed like a missing- persons type of a thing.

MARQUEZ (on camera): The following day Thursday, London's "Guardian" newspaper breaks the news of the NSA data mining program. But it appears it wasn't until Snowden declared himself the source of the documents that anyone knew what he was up to.


MARQUEZ: Now, there is one small inconsistency with what Snowden told "The Guardian." He moved out of the house May 6. He left Hawaii for good on the 20th of May. He told his girlfriend he was leaving for two weeks and that he'd be back, apparently, but it raises the question, why is the house empty? Where were all the boxes that neighbors say were inside of his garage? Where has all his stuff gone and why did his girlfriend then leave Hawaii as well, back to the mainland, expecting him back in two weeks, Wolf?

BLITZER: And we haven't been in touch with the girlfriend, is that right?

MARQUEZ: We have not been in touch with the girlfriend. Her father has spoken to us. He says that she is on the West Coast visiting friends and will return home soon. But it still isn't clear how it is that she's left Hawaii without any real understanding of when he was coming back.

It is a big question, one of many questions still out there about Mr. Snowden. We understand that law enforcement have talked to her two times already, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure they will be speaking to her a little bit more down the road. Thanks very much for that, Miguel Marquez in Hawaii.

Let's go to Maryland right now. Edward Snowden's family lives there. That's where he spent a lot of time.

Brian Todd is in Ellicott City, outside Baltimore, where his mother lives.

What are you discovering, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, to add a little bit to what Miguel is reporting about the girlfriend, we have confirmed on our end that the girlfriend's name is Lindsay Mills. That's about all we can add to what Miguel has got already on the disposition of her end of this in Hawaii and elsewhere.

But what we can tell you from here is that the mother of Edward Snowden was seen today. Her name is Elizabeth Snowden. She appeared outside of her house today as reporters were staking her out here. Here's a little bit of that scene.


ELIZABETH SNOWDEN, MOTHER OF EDWARD SNOWDEN: Please do not get in my way. Thank you.


TODD: Just a very short exchange with reporters as she was heading to work, apparently.

Now, what we have learned since that time is that she works at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Her name is Elizabeth Snowden. She's also known as Wendy to her friends and acquaintances. Her title at the District Court is chief deputy clerk for information technology and administrative services.

She does work there at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Edward Snowden had said he feared some of the ramifications of his actions toward his family and he said some of them worked for the U.S. government, so that is one person in his family we can confirm works for the U.S. government, his mother working for the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Also today, Wolf, we observed law enforcement officers here at the house. They came looking for her, apparently did not find her, and then left. We're not quite sure what agency they were from. They left without speaking to us. And then I spoke later on to a neighbor. Her name is Joyce Kinsey. She observed Edward Snowden visiting his mother on occasion here at the condominium and here's what she had to say about Edward Snowden.


JOYCE KINSEY, NEIGHBOR OF SNOWDEN'S MOTHER: When you say hi to him and everything, he will say hi, but he's always looking down. He's not looking at you. And it's like he doesn't make eye contact. But he was very personable and very nice. And I always saw him on the computer. I could see out my window and I could see him on the computer.


TODD: We have learned that Edward Snowden moved to this area from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where he spent his youth.

We have been told by officials in Anne Arundel County that he went to elementary and middle school in Crofton, Maryland, that he went to Arundel High School near here, Wolf. But from "The Guardian"'s accounts and from indications that we have gotten from school officials, he never got a high school diploma.

BLITZER: Pretty shocking stuff all around. Thanks very much, Brian, for that.

Let's go to Hong Kong right now, where Edward Snowden fled in search of a safe haven, apparently.

CNN's Anna Coren is on the scene for us in Hong Kong.

What are you learning, Anna?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, look, information is pretty sketchy, as you can imagine. We do know that he is here in Hong Kong, and he has been for the past three weeks.

He did check out of a hotel yesterday around lunchtime local time. Our producers were able to track down that hotel and staff say that Edward Snowden had just checked out and that he had been there for the past couple of weeks. But, certainly, this is a fascinating tale, Wolf, that has everybody intrigued.


COREN (voice-over): Edward Snowden arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii around May 20, bringing a catalogue of secrets with him. He made the upscale Mira Hotel his refuge and began giving "The Washington Post" and "The Guardian" the secrets he had brought with him.

In his contacts with "The Post," He gave himself the code name Verax. He took extraordinary precautions, lining the door room of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping, and, he says "leaving the hotel a total of three times during my stay."

In one e-mail to Barton Gellman at "The Washington Post," he wrote: "It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance."

Snowden checked out of the Mira at the weekend, his current whereabouts unknown. But just why did he pick Hong Kong, which has an extradition treaty with the United States? Snowden told "The Guardian" it was because of the mega-city's spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent. Some suspect he's playing the China card.

PATRICIA HO, IMMIGRATION LAWYER: In my view, Edward Snowden must have thought about his role as a pawn between the United States and the Chinese government. And perhaps he thinks if he comes here, that the Chinese government would be interested enough to intervene in any extradition efforts.


COREN: Wolf, that certainly is the question that everybody is asking. Why did Edward Snowden choose Hong Kong? He got on a plane, flew 14 hours from Hawaii, which was where he was based halfway around the world to leak this highly sensitive information.

There were rumors at one stage that perhaps he had family members here, that his father was here. However, from the immigration lawyer that we spoke to in that piece, he really does believe that China is the key role here. He has a treasure-trove of information that obviously the Chinese would love to possess. Perhaps the Chinese could offer him asylum for his freedom in exchange for this highly sensitive information -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anna, is there any comment from Chinese officials either in Hong Kong or Beijing to this whole incident?

COREN: Not at this stage, Wolf. This is very much an unfolding story here.

I think it took everybody by surprise that actually Edward Snowden was here in Hong Kong. He's been here for the past three weeks under a cover of darkness. He's really only been speaking to "The Guardian" newspaper and also to "The Washington Post." So, when he did that article and revealed his identity, revealed that he was here in Hong Kong, it really caught authorities off guard.

But you have to remember U.S. authorities have not yet issued an arrest warrant, so, without that, Hong Kong authorities are under no obligation to find this man. He can move around Hong Kong. He can potentially leave Hong Kong if he wants to. He obviously made reference about Iceland, seeking asylum in Iceland, because of the similar ideals, but for him to do that, Wolf, he can't fly directly there, so he would have to go through another country and there is the potential that Interpol could pick him up in that next country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know the U.S. authorities would like to get their hands on him as soon as possible. We will see what happens. Anna Coren in Hong Kong for us, thank you.

Up next, Edward Snowden spilled secrets to only two journalists. One of them is standing by to join us with insight into Snowden's motives, whether he's believable. Stand by for the interview.

And, later, how did Snowden get top secret access to the NSA's most sensitive programs? An insider takes us through the process and what could go wrong.


BLITZER: The man behind one of the worst intelligence leaks in a generation spilled secrets to only two journalists. One of them is joining us now. He's the investigative reporter Barton Gellman, a contributor to "The Washington Post."

Bart, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Tell us about your first interactions with Snowden, how did that originate?

GELLMAN: Well, there's parts of this I can't get into, but in our early interactions, I was first of all concerned to understand whether he was for real. Believe it or not, a reporter in my position gets a certain number of people who plan to be from spooky agencies and have spooky secrets. And he quickly convinced me that he knew exactly what he was talking about.

BLITZER: What was he like?

GELLMAN: He is thoughtful, reflective, a careful writer, very clear about what he was doing and why he was doing it. Frankly, self- evidently self-sacrificing. He's doing this out of idealism, whether people believe it to be misguided or commendable, and I believe that he has brought to the fore some very important issues that need discussion.

BLITZER: What did he initially pose to you when he contacted you?

GELLMAN: Well, it was -- it wasn't in the nature of a proposal. There's an extended back and forth of discussing what the issues are and what information he might have. And what he regarded as the significance of it.

BLITZER: Do you know why he contacted you? Did he say why Barton Gellman of "The Washington Post" was -- he was hoping would be the recipient of these leaks?

GELLMAN: I can't get into a lot of it. One thing I can say is that he knew that I had some experience on the subject, and he knew that I knew that how to communicate with the kind of security that he was looking for.

BLITZER: Can you tell us how he contacted you?




BLITZER: Without giving us the specifics, why is that so sensitive?

GELLMAN: You know, to explain it I'd have to say too much. You don't want to go there, Wolf. But what I will say is that he is -- having been an employee of more than one intelligence agency, he is well- apprised of the ways that you can use technology of anonymity inscription --

BLITZER: You were speaking with him through e-mail, right? You never met with him face-to-face.

GELLMAN: I never met him face-to-face.

BLITZER: So when you were trying to get some idea if he was legitimate, how did he pass along these documents to you that you then could verify and check out?

GELLMAN: Can't go there either, Wolf. But the documents are in my hands, and I was able to question him about them and ask a lot of questions. He was very clear about what he knew, what he thought was true but didn't know, and what he simply had no idea on. And it was not difficult to authenticate these documents. BLITZER: And you wrote that initially he wanted you to publish all this within 72 hours, but you didn't. You decided to further investigate, right?

GELLMAN: Yes. Well, there were a couple of things. I wanted to make sure I understood the thing carefully. I wanted to understand his context. A lot of these slides are highly technical. It's the NSA talking to itself about a secret surveillance program. It involves understanding both bureaucratic structures and technical details, and there are a lot of things I didn't understand and there were things that I saw in there that I did not think ought to be public. And neither did my editors.

BLITZER: Did he contact -- I was going to say, did he contact you first or did he contact Glenn Greenwald first?

GELLMAN: I can't speak for Glenn; I don't know when he contacted Glenn Greenwald.

BLITZER: But can you tell us when he contacted you?

GELLMAN: No, sorry, I can't.

But he told me -- when I refused to promise that "The Washington Post" would publish the documents in its entirety within 72 hours. At that point, he told me that he was going to -- that the relationship would no longer be what he thought unilateral, by which he meant exclusive, that he was going to break it to someone else. After that, I learned that he had given it to Glenn Greenwald.

BLITZER: Now, apparently you've written about this. He gave you a lot more documents than you released, than you published in "The Washington Post." I take it "The Guardian" has a lot more than what they've published so far as well, is that right?

GELLMAN: I haven't said that.

BLITZER: You haven't said that, but apparently -- well, can you tell us if there's other stuff that he gave you, other documents that he gave you that you decided for whatever reason not to publish?

GELLMAN: I have leads that I continue to pursue, and I doubt that I'm done with my work in this area. I don't normally forecast my future work more than that.

BLITZER: Normally, major U.S. news organizations, when they get these kinds of sensitive leaks before they publish, they consult. They go ahead and confront, they deal with the national security apparatus, the federal government to give them a chance to respond, to make the case why releasing this information would be damaging to national security.

Here's the question -- were you involved in those discussions with the NSA or others in the federal government?

GELLMAN: Yes. And I would put it a little differently. If I have a story about a very important public event, I go to the subject of the story for comment. So we went to the White House and to the director of national intelligence and the NSA, asking who would like to discuss this with us. We recognize that it was sensitive, and we expected that they would probably make a pitch that we should withhold some of the information. But we didn't invite them to do that.

And when they wanted to engage on it, we did so. Those engagements were, generally speaking, off the record, so I can't get into them. But I will say that we took their point of view seriously. They acknowledged we had done that. And we did not do everything they asked us to do.

BLITZER: How much pressure was "The Washington Post," and you for that matter, under from the federal government not to release this information?

GELLMAN: Those conversations were off the record, but I don't think that anyone would find it wise to try to make this into a question of pressure. They expressed their views. They told us what they thought was important about this and the context for the documents. But of course, in the course of those conversations, the presumption is that the document is authentic. And so, it does cement our understanding, on which I was already quite confident, that these documents were real.

BLITZER: Bottom line, what do you think his endgame is right now?

GELLMAN: I don't know. What he cared about most was not his sort of own personality and the adventure side of this, to the extent that you could describe it as that. But that he wanted to surface big, important issues of the relationship of the government to his people, of the power of the government to surveil us, of a system in which has grown up that secret interpretations of the law by the executive are then secretly reviewed by Congress and secretly reviewed by a court which publishes only classified orders and opinions. And all this happens completely out of the view of the public. And what was happening out of view, he believes, was a big problem. I believe that the issues he surfaced are very much worthy of further examination and debate.

BLITZER: So can we expect you and "The Washington Post" to be releasing more of this information in the coming days?

GELLMAN: Well, I certainly expect that we, like lots of news organizations, are going to keep on covering the subject.

BLITZER: Barton Gellman of "The Washington Post," thanks very much for joining us.

GELLMAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're going to get the White House response to Edward Snowden's leak and his claim that the president and other spy agencies have grabbed way too much power.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Happening now: fears that the NSA leaker might share more secrets. Is he telling the truth about what he knows? I will speak with a former CIA and Defense Department insider.

Plus, the damage assessment by the president's national security team. Did Edward Snowden give aid to terrorists?

And we're taking you inside the National Security Agency to see how one of the government's most secret operations sprang a leak.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report: "Traitor or Hero?: Inside the NSA Leak."


SNOWDEN: I'm just another guy who sits there day-to-day in the office, watches what's happening, and goes, this is something that's not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong. And I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say I didn't change these. I didn't modify the story. This is the truth, this is what's happening, you should decide whether we need to be doing this.


BLITZER: That was the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, revealing his identity and explaining his motives.

At age 29, he had access to some of America's most sensitive secrets as the former CIA employee and former intelligence contract worker. The world now knows that he spilled those secrets, and it's raising questions about the background check process for intelligence workers and U.S. contractors.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence. He's digging deep into this part of the story -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one former official told me that the background checks amass an incredible amount of information, but it's part art, part science, and as this case proves, far from foolproof.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Government investigators thought they knew Edward Snowden. He went through a background check, took a polygraph test, and sat through personal interviews. And then the government gave him access to some of its biggest secrets.

(on camera): From your experience at NSA, how deep do they go into your personal background?


LAWRENCE: Retired Colonel Cedric Leighton went through the background check before going to work for the NSA.

LEIGHTON: And the rules for clearances don't change whether you're a government employee or a contract employee.

LAWRENCE: Leighton says Edward Snowden would have started by filling out this form, revealing his finances and any foreign contacts. The investigators start by talking to friends and family, but then use what they say to generate more contacts.

LEIGHTON: They will interview neighbors. They will interview friends, and then they'll go for people who you don't put on your form.

LAWRENCE: Snowden is one of nearly half a million contractors with top-secret clearance, but few have access to as much information as Snowden, an information security engineer.

(on camera): Why does an I.T. guy get access to so much information?

LEIGHTON: It's because of where he sits. They have permissions that normal employees don't have.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Leighton says, as a system administrator, Snowden could likely see outside the need-to-know boxes that constrain some contractors.

LEIGHTON: They may not understand the background of all the information that they see, but they can see information.

LAWRENCE: A former official tells CNN the NSA disabled the USB drives on most computers and uses software to detect flash media.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FORMER ACTING CIA DIRECTOR: Typically in government, there are ways of auditing those kinds of transactions if they're electronic.


LAWRENCE: Now, people change. Their social networks change. The people they talk to change. And so they have a five-year update program where they go back and sort of recertify someone for that security clearance, but the former official said these things take time and they're expensive, and so doing it any more often than that would be a very expensive proposition, Wolf.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, thanks very much.

One key lawmaker says the man who admits being the NSA leaker is a defector and a danger to the United States. Now that Edward Snowden's identity has been revealed, there's an even more heated debate about the Obama administration's surveillance practices.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's got more on this part of the story -- Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. No comment from President Obama today on Edward Snowden or the leaks, but his press secretary insisted that the programs are legal and have Congress's signoff. Not everyone agrees. Some of the critics say they're an overreach.


YELLIN (voice-over): What does President Obama think of charges that he's grabbed too much power?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is a matter that is absolutely appropriate for public debate. This is a conversation especially worth having.

YELLIN: Some critics want to do more than talk. They want to change the law.

(on camera): Does the president agree that the law should be reopened and this is an opportunity?

CARNEY: The president, he believes that, with the oversight that exists and the implementation of the programs as they are implemented, that he -- that the balance is appropriately struck.

YELLIN (voice-over): In fact, the president said 20 times that he thinks...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got congressional oversight and judicial oversight.

YELLIN: And the administration insists Congress has been well- informed, pointing to a list of congressional briefings. But many members say they had no idea how far the programs went. On ABC's "This Week", a Democrat was asked how much he was allowed to know.

REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: I'd say almost nothing.

YELLIN: Even the Republican who wrote a key part of the Patriot Act said he was extremely disturbed by the way the law was applied, and this Democrat wants the see the Patriot Act rewritten.

SEN. MARK UDALL (D), COLORADO: This is the law, but the way the law is being interpreted has really concerned me. The law has been interpreted in a secret way. That's what I've been calling for. Let's have full disclosure of how this law is being applied.

YELLIN: What about the courts? Since NSA surveillance came to light in 2006, the government has requested more than 13,000 warrants from the secret FISA court, and the court has said no only seven times. Only once since President Obama has been in office.

SHANE HARRIS, AUTHOR, "THE WATCHERS": These orders are done in secret. The people who are being targeted don't know they're being targeted, so when the government goes to ask for an order, there's no one really arguing the other side.

YELLIN (on camera): So is it up to just trust our leaders?

JAMES LEWIS, SENIOR FELLOW, CSIS: I don't think anyone would be satisfied if they don't trust the president, the courts, the Congress. They wouldn't be satisfied by telling more senators. That's not going to make them happy.


YELLIN: Now, Wolf, there is a petition posted on calling for a pardon of Edward Snowden. It was posted last night. And as of now, I came out and checked -- I checked right before I came out here. There were 27,500 signatures calling for his pardon. Obviously, that's not going to happen, but it's just a sign of how engaged the left is on this issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Twenty-seven thousand nine hundred as of right now. We just double checked after you.

All right. Thanks very much, Jessica Yellin.

So how much damage have these leaks actually caused? We're going to break it down with the man who was Leon Panetta's chief of staff over at the CIA as well as the Pentagon. Stand by.

And we're also taking you inside one of the most secretive agencies in the U.S. government.


BLITZER: The NSA leaker, traitor or hero? We'll have more of our special report coming up. We're taking a look at the actual leaks from the view of terrorists. Do they feel any safer right now? Stay with us.


BLITZER: So how much damage has been done to U.S. national security as a result of these massive leaks? CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has this part of the story.


EDWARD SNOWDEN, LEAKER: I'm just another guy who sits there day-to- day in the office, watches what's happening.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just another guy, Edward Snowden, is now an international outlaw. And he's also damaged our national security, America's top intelligence officer, James Clapper, charged on MSNBC.

JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Our adversaries, whether nation-state adversaries or nefarious groups, benefit from that same transparency. So as we speak, they are going to school and learning how we do this.

STARR: Not so, says a journalist who got the leak. GLENN GREENWALD, REPORTER, "GUARDIAN": Terrorists already know that the U.S. government tries to surveil their communications. Nothing that we revealed helps, quote unquote, "the terrorists."

STARR: Clapper has ordered initial findings by the end of the week on how much harm has been done.

These NSA programs work by collecting information on e-mails, online activity, and phone calls. The leak of the program's existence may make terrorists stop communicating in these basic ways, essentially pushing them further off the grid.

MARC AMBINDER, AUTHOR: If you're a terrorist and composing an e-mail, what this system allows the NSA to do is watch you compose the e-mail in real-time and figure out, as you're composing the e-mail, where you are.

STARR: And terrorists may now stop using major Internet providers.

MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: They may have had the belief that operating digitally inside the United States offered them a bit of a safe haven. Well, now they know that's not true either.

STARR: But experts say it's impossible to conclude we are less safe now. Ambinder notes that when the WikiLeaks controversy broke, over thousands of leaked documents, many said it would hurt national security, but by all accounts, it did not.

AMBINDER: Traditionally, these leaks have never been as bad as the government says they are. It's just a fact. We're still -- we are still sitting here.


STARR: And the government is now scouring every computer that this leaker, that this man Snowden used, looking at what he logged on to, what he downloaded and what national security information he may now have put at risk -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, thank you.

Joining us now is Jeremy Bash. He served as Leon Panetta's chief of staff, both at the CIA as well as the Defense Department.

Jeremy, thanks for coming in.


BLITZER: In the interview that he gave, Edward Snowden, he made several boasts. I'm going to play some clips and you give us your expertise as to whether he's right or wrong. Listen to this one first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SNOWDEN: I sit in my desk, certainly have the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president, if I had a personal e-mail.


BLITZER: That's the claim right there. I can wiretap any personal e- mail, even the president of the United States. Is that true? A 29- year-old contract employee working with the NSA could do that?

BASH: Wolf, he's misinformed. He's not reading the law. The law says that if you want to conduct surveillance inside the United States, you need a particularized warrant. You've got to go to the FISA court, square out exactly who you want to listen to and for what purpose. The judge has to bless this, just like we do in the criminal context. That whole process is overseen by the court; it's overseen by Congress. He's simply wrong.

BLITZER: But what if he doesn't want to go through the court? What if he just wants to go through it himself, and he makes the decision: "I'm not going to court and get a warrant. I'm going to go eavesdrop and listen to your conversations or my conversations or the president's conversations." Technically, did he have that capability?

BASH: No, the systems are set up to require that permission, that warrant, that authority. He's got to go to supervisors. He's got to go through the chain of command. They've got to apply for the warrant in -- at the court in Washington. He can't just turn or flip the switch...

BLITZER: Even though he's an I.T. guy?

BASH: He can't just flip the switch and start listening to anybody he wants. He could break the law. He could do things out of his purview, but that would be totally illegal, totally inappropriate and totally at odds with everything...

BLITZER: But technically, if he wanted to break the law, he could eavesdrop and listen to our conversations?

BASH: People can do a lot of things. The police have the arrest authority. Does that mean that they can just arrest anybody they want? No. They have to follow the law. They have to follow procedures, and they have to be overseen. And that's -- that's the situation here with our intelligence agency.

BLITZER: All right. So if he wanted to break the law, even as he was an NSA employee or a contract employee, he could have done that?

BASH: Wolf, that's so hypothetical, I don't know if it's ever happened, and when it's been happened, it's been remedied. The intelligence agencies and the inspector general from Congress would be all over that.

BLITZER: All right. Here's another boast that he made. I'll play the clip. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SNOWDEN: I had access to, you know, the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station we had, what their missions are and so forth.


BLITZER: You think that's realistic? He knew where every covert CIA operative was located?

BASH: I can't believe that for a second, Wolf. I didn't have that access. The director of the agencies don't have that access. I can't imagine he would. I just think that's hyperbole and a boast, and I don't put any credibility in that whatsoever.

Listen, Wolf, he's giving whistleblowers a bad name. He's not a whistleblower. Whistleblowers want to ensure that the law is followed. He broke the law. He copied classified documents, and he made a run for the border.

BLITZER: Here's another claim that he made. I'll play this clip.


SNOWDEN: Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude. To where it's getting to the point you don't have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.


BLITZER: So what do you think about that?

BASH: I think there's so many misconceptions and misrepresentations there, it's hard to know where to start. I would say for the intelligence agencies, one more time, Wolf, for them to intercept the phone calls of anybody in the United States, you have to get a warrant. They have got to go to the court. You've got to show probable cause that that person is a terrorist or a spy. Can't just intercept phone calls and read e-mails and track everything without any oversight.

BLITZER: But what happens if a terrorist, let's say, in Yemen makes a call to the United States and misdials and calls your phone or my phone. What happens then?

BASH: That's a great question. If any U.S. person's information is collected inadvertently or accidentally there are procedures in place at the agencies overseen by the lawyers, overseen by the general council, they're called minimization procedures. It means all the U.S. information has to be expunged, deleted and blacked out.

BLITZER: He went to China, to Hong Kong, which is part of China, to escape from the U.S. after, presumably while releasing some of this information. Here's his explanation of why China.


SNOWDEN: So there's a couple assertions in those agents that are sort of imbedded in the questioning of the choice of Hong Kong.

The first is that China is an enemy of the United States. It's not. I mean, there are conflicts between the United States government and the Chinese PRC government, but the peoples inherently, you know, we don't care. We trade with each other freely. You know, we're not at war. We're not in armed conflict, and we're not trying to be.


BLITZER: What, if anything, do you read into his decision to go to Hong Kong?

BASH: He finally said something I agree with, which is the United States and China are not enemies. China and the United States have a productive relationship. We just saw the summit this past weekend in Rancho Mirage.

But what I make of his decision to run away is that he wants to evade U.S. law enforcement. And I think if he really was proud of what he had done, if he thought that this was some noble cause, he would have stepped forward and said, "I've done this because I believe this is important to do." I'm not sure why he's hiding out in Hong Kong if he believes that.

BLITZER: Do you think there's something else going on as far as China is concerned?

BASH: I don't know, but I think we have to be concerned that whatever information he may still have, that perhaps hasn't been released may fall into the hands of a foreign government, whether it's China or anybody else.

BLITZER: Why are you concerned about that?

BASH: Well, because if someone takes classified documents out of the agency, if they take a polygraph test and swear a nondisclosure agreement and voluntarily agree to be bound by the secrecy rules and then steal that information and take it to a foreign country, I think we've got to be concerned that that material may get into the wrong hands.

BLITZER: Jeremy Bash, thanks very much for coming in.

BASH: Thanks. BLITZER: When we come back, it's been called the most secretive agency in the United States. You're going to find out what really goes on inside the National Security Agency, the NSA.


BLITZER: Edward Snowden's leaks have focused attention on one of the most secretive agencies of the U.S. government, the National Security Agency or the NSA.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence reports the agency is so secretive people have joked those initials actually stand for "no such agency."


LAWRENCE (voice-over): CIA spies have their secrets. So do the men in Special Ops. But they can't compare to the National Security Agency.

JAMES BAMFORD, AUTHOR, "THE SHADOW AGENCY": The NSA is the most secretive agency in the country. It's far more secret than the CIA.

LAWRENCE: The NSA is headquartered in a highly secure section of Ft. Meade Army base in Maryland, and it's building a new surveillance center in the middle of a Utah desert. There, spread out over a million square feet of cables and computers, NSA will capture everything from e-mails to Internet searches, phone calls and personal data.

BAMFORD: It's designed to hold an enormous amount of communications.

LAWRENCE: Author James Bamford estimates the center will be able to store enough data to equal 500 quintillion pages. For a record, that's a 5 with 20 zeros behind it.

And if you printed those pages, stacked them one on top of the other, it would be long enough to stretch all the way to the moon and back 66 million times.

A former official who spoke on background to CNN described the NSA as incredibly aggressive, but he says, "I can't emphasize how fanatical they are about Americans' privacy." There's a sign in the center of a room that reads 'What constitutes a U.S. person?" And then lists a dozen points to consider.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, DIRECTOR, NSA: I think it's absolutely important for people to understand we're not asking for content, we're asking for information about threats.

LAWRENCE: The NSA's 35,000 employees are an even mix of military and civilians. The former official said the troops are younger and give the agency its energy. The civilians, mostly mathematicians, provide, quote, "adult supervision" and tend to be more socially introverted.

The former official says an inside joke at NSA goes something like how do you spot an extrovert at NSA? When he's talking to you, he looks down at your shoes instead of his own.

(on camera): The former official says it's not the CIA, where they're recruiting agents in coffee shops all over the world. He says the NSA is set up to be secretive. Its people rarely talk. They don't write books. And they have some protection that even other intelligence organizations don't have.

Chris Lawrence, CNN, the Pentagon.


BLITZER: Up next, words that Edward Snowden's supporters will find chilling.


BLITZER: The fallout from the biggest intelligence leak in a generation is only just beginning. Edward Snowden says he knows that the federal government is probably going to come after him. Listen to what his take is on the spy agencies, what they will be doing in the days ahead as they try to track him down and punish him.


SNOWDEN: I'm sure they're going to be very busy for the next week. And that's -- that's a fear I'll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.

You can't come forward against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they're such powerful adversaries. No one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they'll get you in time.


BLITZER: We'll be following this story every step of the way. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Just tweet me @WolfBlitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.