How Serious Is The NSA Data Leak?

The whistleblower who exposed vast surveillance operations by the NSA says he has done nothing wrong. Host Michel Martin speaks to Republican strategist Ron Christie and former adviser to the Obama administration, Corey Ealons, about what his actions mean for the President's second term. They also check in with other top political stories.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'd like to thank my colleague Celeste Headlee for sitting in while I was away for a few days last week.

Later in the program, June is Pride Month in the U.S. That's an opportunity to talk about issues pertaining to LGBT people, and if you watch a lot of TV or movies you're probably familiar with the idea that gays are more likely to be rich or at least upper middle-class. Now there's new research that families led by LGBT Americans actually have a higher poverty rate than those headed by heterosexuals. We'll talk with the study's lead author in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about the news story that has many Americans talking about the balance between privacy and national security. The man who gave classified documents to reporters, Edward Snowden, spoke up yesterday in an interview with the Guardian. He's the person who disclosed information about the National Security Agency's alleged secret surveillance programs. Those reportedly show that the U.S. government has been sweeping up large amount of data on phone calls and internet activity from both inside and outside the U.S.

And as you might imagine, there are many different perspectives about this and those perspectives don't fall neatly along partisan lines. So we've called two former White House insiders to give us their views. Ron Christie is a former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's a Republican strategist and communications advisor now. Corey Ealons is a Democrat. He's a former communications advisor to the Obama administration, now senior vice president of VOX Global. Welcome back to you both, thank you both so much for joining us.

RON CHRISTIE: Absolutely. Nice to be with you.

COREY EALONS: Always good to be here.

MARTIN: So let's start with the clip of Edward Snowden, he's an employee with the consulting group Booz Allen Hamilton, talking about the kind of access he allegedly had. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wire tap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.

MARTIN: And he goes on to say that he felt this is the kind of situation that should be subject to more public scrutiny - that there should be public debate about this. Now last week the Obama administration tried to downplay this whole story, saying it was following guidelines that were approved under the Bush administration, and that many people already knew this was going on. But over the weekend, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said the leaks could have, quote, huge grave damage to our intelligence capabilities. Now, you know, understanding that none of us knows the complete picture, I don't know that anybody here knows the complete picture, but both of you have had access to sensitive information, so Corey, I'll start with you.

EALONS: Well, this debate, whenever we have a chance to talk about the debate between privacy and security, it's a good one, it's a healthy one for us to have. The challenge is when the information is revealed in this particular way, and I agree with Clapper that it could have long-term sustained damage to our national security issues. But at the same time, it's a good debate worth having to be sure, to make sure that the American people understand what's going on, and that our policy leaders have an opportunity to review the policies that are in place. Just because the Patriot Act has been passed and has been approved by the Supreme Court, that doesn't mean that it should languish in perpetuity. They should be reviewed on a regular basis, and I think that's the big lesson at the moment that we have coming out of this, but of course, more will be revealed in the days and weeks ahead.

MARTIN: Ron, what do you say?

CHRISTIE: I largely agree with what Corey had to say. I think for those of us who have had the privilege to have access to secure compartmentalized information, it's called SCI for a reason. There's a reason that the CIA and our national security apparatus go through very extensive background checks to make sure that those both inside the government, as well as contractors who have access to secure information, make sure that they keep that secret. So for this person to go around and proclaim himself to be some sort of a hero, and he's holed up in Hong Kong, I certainly and I hope and expect that he will not only be extradited from Hong Kong but he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

MARTIN: To your point, Ron, one of the fascinating twists here is finding out who the origin of this information is, and as we said he's 29 years old; his name is Edward Snowden; as you said, he's basically, I guess, holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong. He's hoping to win asylum in a country like Iceland. And, so Ron, I just have to ask, is there a fail here, from what you see, just from what we know so far. I mean, he's a contractor, he says that he had easy access to all kinds of sensitive information. Is there a fail here that you can identify at this point?

CHRISTIE: I think there is. One of the things that I noticed reading the paper this morning was the fact that we have tens of thousands of contractors across the United States who work for outside consultancies and advise the government using sensitive information. Given the fact that we don't know how many people have access to this level of information, I think, as Corey pointed out, this a good time for our policymakers to reflect, to perhaps revise, and take a strong look at the manner in which we disseminate secure and compartmentalized information to ensure people like this don't have access to it in the future.

MARTIN: Corey.

EALONS: I think what's ironic about the situation right now is that for Susan Rice, this may be one of her first assignments as the national security adviser to the president - is taking a look at how this sensitive information is handled and who has access to it. One of the reports I read said that millions of people have access to classified data. And I think even if you appreciate that the government has the purest of intentions in how they use this information for national security issues, what happens to the information after it's gathered? Where does it go? Who has access to it then? Those are all the types of questions that have to be reviewed on a regular basis, and I think those are the questions that are going to be brought up now.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the interesting things for me though is that in the interview with the Guardian, he says that this was a matter of principle for him. The government's granted itself power it's not entitled to, but he also wants to avoid prosecution. And, you know, Corey, you're from Birmingham, and if you are a civil rights activist, then isn't part of the agenda to subject yourself to the system so that you can call attention to the injustice of the system as you see it. And I'm just - I'm sort of curious about that, you know, Ron's expressed the view that he feels he should be prosecuted. Do you have an opinion about that?

EALONS: I have the opinion that people who swear an oath to protect the nation's secrets should do so. And if you stand on principle and you believe in what you're doing, you don't dump the information and run off to another country. You stand firm, you stand tall, and you defend the principle and take the consequences, whatever they might be.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our political chat. We're talking about the recent NSA leak. With us are Republican strategist Ron Christie and former Obama administration advisor Corey Ealons. I wanted to switch gears now and talk about some politics closer to home, the New Jersey Senate race - that Senator Frank Lautenberg died last week, as many people know, leaving an open seat. A number of Democrats have already thrown their hats into the ring to try to succeed him and the most - I think the best known are Newark Mayor Cory Booker and U.S. Representative Frank Pallone. Cory Booker is, I think a lot of people know, kind of a larger-than-life figure. He recently made national news when he literally ran into a building to rescue one of his neighbors. But Frank Pallone says, look, he has a strong record to stand on. So Corey Ealons, the other Corey, how does this scene strike you?

EALONS: This is going to be one of the most watched races this year, to be sure. And it's going to be very, very exciting. We all have some sense of who Corey Booker is, this is a person who has one, sought the mayor's office for the city of Newark. He lost the first time, he won the last two times. But he's seen as a larger-than-life, very dynamic figure, some say Obama before Obama in fact. He has a very strong national base, a very strong fundraising base. So he's going to be very good. Frank Pallone - slight contrast. Someone who's been a longtime member of the House of Representatives, a very strong member, someone who's actually had the responsibility for managing message for Democrats in Congress. But someone who is known and appreciated locally, has a very strong base among Democrats in the state and also has a good bit of money - four million dollars in the bank right now, nothing to sneeze at. But you're competing in that New York media market - going to be very tough.

MARTIN: Ron, why do you see - of course noting that there's been a lot of attention focused to the fact that this has been - a special election is going to be held here and a lot of people are really angry at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for calling a special election, when he could've waited until November. People are saying that this is kind of a selfish use of taxpayer's money to keep more Democrats off the ballot when he'll be running again in November. So, Ron, do you care?

CHRISTIE: I do care. On a personal level, I like the mayor of Newark. I think that Cory Booker is an outstanding young leader. While I don't agree with all of his politics, I certainly agree with his position on charter schools and trying to help those who need the most to get that hands to bring them up. As it relates to Chris Christie, while I was born in New Jersey, I am happy to tell you I have no relation to him. Yet another cynical, very political move on his part. Rather than run in an election two weeks later, which Mr. Booker's name would also be on the ballot, Chris Christie decided very selfishly, at a cost that is ranging from 12 to $25 million to the citizens of New Jersey, to have a special election - that Cory Booker could run for that seat and yet Chris Christie can safely run for reelection two weeks later, so that of course Mr. Booker's name, a very popular Democrat, isn't on the ballot. So more cynical, selfish politics from Governor Chris Christie.

MARTIN: Do you think that other Republicans share your view?

CHRISTIE: Oh, I know they do. This is something that, both in Washington, where I am most of the time, and in New York here today, I've had many discussions with people across the party who say that Chris Christie is willing to put his own personal interest against the political interest of the party and, of course, the political interest of the GOP in New Jersey.

MARTIN: Could this follow him? Ron and then Corey, I'll have a final word from you on this. Do you think this could follow him, is this the kind of thing that leaves a bad taste in people's mouth or you think that once the election is over, people will forget about it?

CHRISTIE: Look, for better or worse, Michel, people were very cynical in the Republican Party about his open embrace of President Obama during superstorm Sandy. This only is going to be more icing on the cake of people who say this guy wants it for him all the time.

MARTIN: Corey, what do you have to say about that?

EALONS: Well, what's interesting - if you listen to what Ron's saying, basically, if you play that theme out, you're saying that Christie believes he would lose and apparently Republicans would be okay with that - if he did lose, if that election were held at the same time as opposed to having two separate elections. So that gives you some sense of the angst and the discord among Republicans and their really deep feelings about Christie right now.

MARTIN: Well, Ron, who would Republicans like better in New Jersey? We only have about a minute left, but...

CHRISTIE: I think Chris Christie's about the best you're going to find as far as the politics. I wouldn't say, Corey, that we're in discord or we're anxious, I just think it's a very selfish manipulation. So perhaps he gets a double-digit re-election if he runs by himself because, of course, Chris Christie wants to run for president. So it's not that we don't think that we're going to win that seat, it's that I think Christie wants to have a larger margin of error heading into 2016.

MARTIN: Well, Ron Christie, no relation, as he told you, to the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. Ron Christie, our Ron Christie, is a Republican strategist; he's a former assistant to President George W. Bush. He's the president of Christie Strategies. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Also with us from Washington, D.C. is Corey Ealons. He's senior vice present for VOX Global. He's a former director of media for the Obama administration, here, as we said, in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

EALONS: Always good to be here.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, it's wedding season and if you're the photographer, you might be used to shepherding the happy couple to the local park or fountain for some snaps. But if you're documenting a same-sex wedding, you might want to think that through.

KATHRYN HAMM: Making the simple request of asking a couple to cuddle, even, could be a problem that would engender a negative reaction.

MARTIN: The art of capturing same-sex weddings. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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