By Jay Newton-Small
The Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session grilled Army General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, on Tuesday for the leaks of highly classified information by Edward Snowden, a low-level NSA contractor, according to members of the committee. This was first of what is likely to be many such uncomfortable sessions before congressional committees.
Alexander is “perplexed by it too,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, told TIME. “Obviously, General Alexander does not review or interview every applicant. But he is concerned about the process, about the use of contractors versus NSA employees. All of this is going to be looked at in light of these leaks taking place.”
For her part, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, who has called Snowden a traitor, wants to know how so many contractors are given access to such sensitive information. “I’m very concerned that we have government contractors doing what are essentially governmental jobs and, I think, particularly with highly classified information,” Feinstein said. “Government people, who take an oath to keep that information secure, should be the ones” handling sensitive intelligence.
On Sunday, Snowden, who worked for subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton out of Hawaii, revealed himself to be the source of Guardian and Washington Post stories last week that revealed that the NSA had logs of every phone call and their duration, being made both to-and-from the U.S. and within the U.S., and that the NSA runs a program called PRISM which trolls the servers of major internet companies like AOL and Google for potential terrorist communications. Snowden, who said he was in Hong Kong seeking asylum from various countries, called himself a whistle blower and said he was hoping to start a national debate about America’s surveillance of its people.
Lawmakers almost universally expressed shock that 29-year-old Snowden, who dropped out of high school and never finished college, had been given a reported $122,000-a-year job with top-secret clearance. “I have a lot of questions that I would personally ask about this man,” says Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, “how he ended up with a security clearance and a job that pays somewhere between $120,000 and $200,000 a year.”
Chambliss suggested that not only does the vetting process–which has been in overdrive in recent years to overcome a decade-long post 9-11 backlog–need to be overhauled, but that regular check-ups should be done for those already cleared in case, as it appears happened with Snowden, employees become disaffected. “Like those who get disability claims, there’s got to be a period of time where you go back and look at individuals and look at if top secret clearance is still appropriate for them,” Chambliss said. “If people are getting dissatisfied, we have to know it and deal with it so they don’t go outside and vent their frustrations to the press.”