At this past summer’s Aspen Security Forum, Jeh Johnson — President Obama’s choice for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — defended the government’s controversial surveillance and data-mining programs, while taking a hard line on whistleblowers who leak information to the press.
The July forum brings present and former government officials to the Aspen Institute campus, including leaders from the White House and intelligence community, along with journalists and members of Congress.
Johnson, former top attorney for the Department of Defense, sat on a panel that included National Security Agency (NSA) general counsel Raj De and American Civil Liberties Union director Anthony Romero. Titled “Counterterrorism, National Security, and the Rule of Law,” the discussion focused largely on then-recent revelations of the government’s classified PRISM surveillance program, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Romero and Johnson butted heads over Snowden’s leaks and the legality of PRISM. When Romero praised Snowden for bringing the program to light, saying “I think he did this country a service,” Johnson countered, “I think it is a bad public message for us to send to people who decide to take the law into their own hands that they’re doing a public service.”
Romero argued that Snowden’s revelations of the program sparked a public debate that was not possible while the government kept programs, like its widespread collection of Americans’ phone records, secret.
“Our democracy, regardless of whether you think he broke the law, and our country is better as a result of the revelations,” Romero said.
“That’s anarchy,” Johnson responded.
He also advocated criminal prosecutions of leakers.
“We don’t necessarily need to think about changing national security policy in reaction to one criminal act, I think we need to deal with that person in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Johnson argued that the program is legal and constitutional, noting it was cleared by the executive and legislative branches, and is regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. He said collecting phone data does not violate the Fourth Amendment, because there is no expectation of privacy in the data itself — tapping the calls, he said, would be unconstitutional without probable cause.
“The reality is that the NSA surveillance program is probably the most regulated national security program we have,” he said.
The panel’s moderator, NBC News’ Mike Isikoff, asked Johnson about the U.S. drone program, which expanded while Johnson was general counsel for the Department of Defense. Johnson was quoted in a book last year, saying, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession,” after watching video of a drone strike killing citizens in Yemen. On the panel, he said drones are less likely to kill civilians than other tactics.
“The good news, to the extent there is any in our conflict, is that with our modern technology, collateral damage is minimized,” he said.
President Obama earlier last week announced his intention to nominate Johnson as Homeland Security secretary, succeeding Janet Napolitano.