Controversy over disclosure of widespread national surveillance and intelligence programs last year attracted about 80 people to a roundtable discussion on the issue hosted by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, Monday afternoon at the Westport Library.
The panel also featured Mike German, a former FBI agent and currently with the New York University Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, and David McGuire of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
The discussion took place on the one-year anniversary of Edward Snowden's disclosure of the National Security Agency's monitoring and collection of international, national and personal data. Snowden, an American computer specialist who worked for the NSA, is accused of leaking documents that uncovered numerous surveillance programs, many of them run by the agency.
"About a year ago, we were struggling to understand what was released," Himes said.
"Clearly the information he provided has caused debate," said McGuire.
That debate over NSA programs prompted by Snowden's leaks is the only affirmative aspect of his actions, said Himes. "That's where it ends," he said.
The congressman said Snowden was "just plain wrong" in making public voluminous records related to the surveillance, adding that when someone breaks the law -- as he suggested Snowden had -- they should "willingly take the consequences."
One resident, Sal Liccione, asked if Snowden -- who has taken refuge in Russia -- should face criminal charges if he ever returns to the U.S.
Himes said Snowden can "redeem himself by saying, `Hey, I broke the law and bear the consequences.' "
German said Snowden's actions also opened up the debate on a need for "more transparency."
Resident Dick Lowenstein said he agreed with Himes' comments, but took the actions of the ACLU to task, saying it has taken "a strong position in favor of Snowden ... (but) the first name in ACLU is American."
German, However, after the discussion, said part of the problem with people like Snowden is that there is "no avenue to bring this type" of concern to light by whistleblowers.
"I see hypocrisy," she said. "Both were a very serious breaches of national security," Himes said. But with Plame it was "just rank politics."
Himes said early amendments "to flat get rid of metadata gathering" following the disclosures "morphed into the USA Freedom Act," which, he added, probably ended bulk metadata collection, which he had opposed. He said his feelings on the matter are based more on a "visceral" response than on legalities or the law.
He said his constituents fall into two camps on the issue: "There are those who say, `It doesn't bother me if the government gets essentially what's on my phone bill,' " he said. "While others say, `That's not acceptable.' "
Himes said the question to ask about the national surveillance program is: "Is it effective?" adding the U.S. spends $70 billion to $80 billion each year on national security alone.
German, who was with the FBI for 17 years, said there's nothing to fear if "you are not a terrorist or a criminal." He said that half of the amendments to the Constitution are meant to "limit police powers," adding that the document's framers "wanted to make sure those protections are intact."
The discussion came after the recent passage of the U.S.A. Freedom Act and Intelligence Authorization Act in the House of Representatives. As a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Himes said he has worked to improve oversight of the NSA and ensure that intelligence agencies are taking Americans' privacy into consideration.
The recently passed authorization included two amendments co-sponsored by Himes. The first establishes an independent NSA inspector general and the second amendment strengthens reporting requirements for violations of law or executive order committed by the intelligence community.