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.

Justice Department attorneys must go before one of the judges on this panel to win their approval of each and every surveillance action. They must present their case in written and oral arguments that set forth why the FISA court should sign off on the surveillance and defend their request under intense questioning by the jurists. Last year, the court approved 1,789 eavesdropping applications. One request was withdrawn and some 40 others were modified to obtain the court's approval.

The judges exercise special vigilance to insure that the eves-dropping on foreign targets will not unwittingly violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment rights "against unreasonable searches." There was only one case during this period when the court found this to be the case.

These judges take their work seriously and dismiss any notion they've become rubber stamps for the government. "It has opened my eyes to the level of hatred that exists in the world," U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, the court's chief judge, told the Washington Post in 2009.

At the same time, the House and Senate Intelligence Committee members are briefed on the government's classified national security activities, but are barred from publicly revealing what they are told.

"The Intelligence Committee knew and members [of Congress] could go into the Intelligence Committee room and read the documents, Jennifer Hoelzer, a former staff assistant to Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon who is a member of the panel, told the Post this week.

Is there a need to fine-tune the Patriot Act under which government surveillance operations are approved and conducted? Perhaps. That will be fully explored in the coming debate and likely hearings.

But the frightening, cold-blooded fact remains that global terrorism still threatens all Americans. We know that al-Qaeda cells and other related terrorist groups -- from a number of foiled plots and other sting operations -- are constantly testing our security, probing for opportunities to enter our country to kill as many Americans as possible.

Far-left activists like filmmaker Michael Moore and Daniel Ellsberg are hailing Edward Snowden as a "hero," and legions of terrorist plotters are cheering his dirty deed, seeing it as a major blow to homeland security.

"For me, it is literally -- not figuratively -- literally gut-wrenching to see this happen because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities," Clapper said this week.

Snowden is a naïve, libertarian ideologue with delusions of grandeur about his new-won fame, given to hyperbolic and exaggerated claims about the power he had as a low-level tech consultant. In one of his self-absorbed diatribes, he bragged he could order wiretaps on any government official, from "a federal judge to even the president."

In a note to the Post, he said that "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

Decisions about all surveillance operations should be "made by the public," he said in a video with the Guardian newspaper. But, in fact, they were made by the public and approved by them at the polls in the people they elected to Congress to write our laws.

Snowden will be arrested, brought back to the states and fully prosecuted for his crimes. But Obama and the administration have to answer some troubling questions, too. How did this security risk gain entrance to the nation's most classified national security secrets? How many other little-know contract employees -- among the thousands who work in other classified programs -- are leaking information to those who want to do us harm?

The president and his top intelligence advisers are sitting on a major breach of national security, but they have yet to explain how this happened and what they're doing to make sure it can't happen again.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.