Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - Several key elements in the bombshell story about the government's secret surveillance programs have been either underreported or left out of the narrative altogether.

The first is the degree to which all three branches of the government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- oversee these programs. The second is how did a little-known, low-level, 29-year-old, high school drop out with no academic or work credentials to speak of gain access to America's most critical national security secrets.

The first element, often completely missing from network nightly news stories, is that surveillance programs such as these are being closely monitored under laws established by Congress and overseen by a special court of federal judges.

The second story is a scandal of enormous proportions inside the Obama administration: its failure to establish and enforce a leak-proof system of access rules among intelligence agency employes, especially among private, contract workers employed by outside consultants.

In this case, the culprit is Edward Snowden, a low-level tech specialist who was hired a bare three months ago by the consulting firm Booze Allen Hamilton that provides an army of contract specialists for the top-secret National Security Agency.

The fact that someone with scant credentials -- who not that many years ago was a security guard at the University of Maryland -- could so easily gain access to the nation's top-secrets exposes a gaping hole in the administration's internal security system and has put the nation's national security in jeopardy.

As the story has rapidly unfolded, you would think that the surveillance program, gathering data from phone calls and foreign communications on the Internet was overseen by no one.

Last week, as the little-known surveillance programs triggered renewed debate, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. sharply criticized the news media for leaving out a critical component in the story: the "extent to which these programs are overseen by all three branches of government."

It was a justifiable complaint, because the oversight system is an elaborate one, set forth in law.

Every surveillance initiative must be approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), created by Congress in 1978. It is composed of 11 specially selected federal judges chosen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.