The PJ Tatler

White House Getting to Bottom of Surveillance Scandal — Who Leaked the News, That Is

The Obama administration assured reporters at the China summit in Palm Springs on Saturday afternoon that they were busy getting to the bottom of the latest controversy in which it was revealed that millions of Americans phone records were being accessed by the NSA and operation PRISM was snooping on web browsing and email communications.

That is, the administration is determined to bust whoever leaked the information about the programs to the Guardian and Washington Post, respectively.

“What we’re focused on doing right now, and you’ve seen this in the DNI statement, is, frankly, doing an assessment of the damage that is being done to U.S. national security by the revelation of this information, which is necessarily secret because the United States needs to be able to conduct intelligence activities without those methods being revealed to the world,” foreign policy speechwriter and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told the media at a joint press conference with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

The White House tried to keep the focus on the meeting of President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, but reporters were anxious for a chance to ask the national security team about the FISA case. And administration officials made clear that the man embroiled in another scandal over stifling press freedom by seizing the AP’s phone records and labeling Fox News correspondent James Rosen a co-conspirator will be key in a probe of the surveillance program leaks.

“So currently there’s a review underway, of course, to understand what potential damage may be done. As it relates to any potential investigations, we’re still in the early stages of this,” Rhodes continued.

“Obviously the Justice Department would have to be involved in that. So this is something that I think will be addressed in the coming days by the Justice Department of the intelligence community in consultation with the full interagency that’s been affected by these very disturbing leaks of national security information,” he added.

Rhodes said he couldn’t comment on the volume of data the NSA has collected.

“To be clear here, it’s not as if there are people sitting there reading every piece of information that may be in the universe of collection that the U.S. government has,” he said. “I think the point that’s very important for Americans to understand is that for the U.S. government to decide to pursue an investigation of an American citizen or a U.S. person, there would have to be an additional step beyond these programs that have been described to get a warrant and to essentially pursue a lead if there’s a suspected nexus to terrorism.”

“So just as the president said, we’re not listening to anybody’s phone calls.  We’re also not going out and seeking to read people’s electronic communications.”

Obama gave Xi a bench as a gift to take back to China.

“The bench was made out of a redwood, which is obviously very unique to this part of the United States,” Rhodes said. “And the Protocol Office I think can give you more details, but I think Tom mentioned that the two leaders were able to take a walk and were able to sit on what became the bench that the Chinese will be taking with them.”

“Just a couple of things to add on, though, not with respect to the bench specifically but with respect to the personal interaction between President Obama and President Xi,” Donilon chimed in. “We, as I said earlier, really saw this as an opportunity for the two presidents at an important moment here to deepen their personal relationship, to establish and deepen their personal relationship as a foundation for going forward; to address the range of issues that we have to address.”