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Secret spying: From critic to supporter

June 18th, 2013
04:27 PM ET

By Samuel Burke, CNN

Timothy Edgar has been on both sides of the debate over government surveillance, and he says that the protections in place work.

He was a lawyer at the ACLU holding the government's feet to the fire at the American Civil Liberties Union and then he became, in his own words, a reluctant insider advising both Presidents Bush and Obama on this very issue.

“Certainly Congress has been briefed repeatedly numerous times over the years,” Edgar told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “But it's very different when you're having a public debate than one in which you're just getting briefed by intelligence officials.” 

The public debate should have happened earlier, Edgar believes.

“We did have a good public debate about the surveillance issues involved in PRISM,” – the National Security Agency surveillance program – “but we haven't had a good debate about the call records program,” Edgar said. “I think that should have been affirmatively disclosed in a broad outline and not waiting for some leak from a 29-year-old Booz Allen employee. That's not the way to do it.”

Edgar is an openness advocate, but now finds himself in the administration watching the watchdogs.

He says the system works.

“There are safeguards that are basically designed to make sure we're targeting foreigners overseas. And there are safeguards that are designed to make sure we're not mistakenly collecting innocent Americans' communications,” Edgar said. “For the call records, the safeguards are that the analyst needs to have reasonable suspicion that there's a connection to terrorism before he or she can query them. And all of these are overseen by the Justice Department and by the Director of National Intelligence. They do periodic audit reports that are supplied to Congress and the court.”

Between 1979 and 2012, the FISA court received more than 33,000 surveillance applications and rejected just 11.

“It did bother me a lot on the outside, because those numbers make it sound like a rubber stamp. But in reality, they take their job very, very seriously.

“Part of the reason for those numbers is that it's very difficult to get your applications for surveillance through the Justice Department. There's an office there that really views themselves kind of as neutral arbiters between the intelligence community and the courts,” Edgar said. “ So they go back and forth with the intelligence agencies a lot. And then if they think they're going to get a denial, they'll usually withdraw it and try to create a more narrow application. So if you see how it works, those numbers, you know, don't really tell that story.”

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