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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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June 18th, 2013
06:43 PM ET

NSA whistleblowers: Obama administration misleading on surveillance programs

President Barack Obama publicly defended the NSA programs revealed by admitted leaker Edward Snowden.

"If you're a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it's not targeting your emails unless it's getting an individualized court order," Obama told PBS's Charlie Rose.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander reiterated the president's point, telling Congress on Tuesday that the NSA does not have the ability to listen to Americans' phone calls or read their e-mails.

The president also assured the public that while he understands the concerns of privacy, some information is better kept as a secret.

"Look, we have to make decisions about how much classified information and how much covert activity we are willing to tolerate as a society. And we could not have carried out the (Osama) bin Laden raid if it was carried out on the front page of the papers. I think everybody understands that," said Obama.

William Binney takes issue with "virtually everything" Obama said about the NSA programs in the PBS interview.

Binney worked at the NSA for almost 40 years. He retired in 2001 after his criticism of an NSA program. Over the years, he has disclosed surveillance programs used by the government.

Binney said all e-mails are already being collected, and stored, even if they are not being read.

"Director (Robert) Mueller of the FBI said in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 30, 2011, he said I've gotten together with the DOD where we've put together this technology database where I can go in, and I can, with one query, I can get all past and all future e-mails from a person," said Binney. "That says he's looking at U.S. citizen e-mail, past and future, as they come in."

Former senior executive at the NSA Thomas Drake said the surveillance programs go beyond metadata.

Drake provided information to The Baltimore Sun in 2005 about gross waste and fraud at the NSA. He was prosecuted under The Espionage Act, but later accepted a misdemeanor plea for unauthorized use of a government computer.

"In the digital world the metadata is really an index of the content, content itself is carried by the metadata," said Drake. "So it's very easy to go to the content whenever you feel like."

"There's a lot of dissembling going on from the president and others," said Drake. "When you're asking Verizon, for example under that special court order ... to turn over 100 million plus phone records, and then claim that you don't have the names associated with those numbers, it just stretches the bounds of credulity."

At Tuesday's hearing, the Gen. Alexander said the technology for an analyst to flip a switch and listen to Americans' phone calls or read their e-mails does not exist at the NSA. But Snowden suggests otherwise. Who is right?

"Snowden was a systems administrator, so he had access to the whole system, databases, and processes and communications lines, so he was responsible to keep it up and running. So he could go into anything, basically change anything in there," said Binney.

"What he's really saying is, 'I can take a target number and put it in a target list, and at that point it would be tasked to the system to collect," said Binney.

"The technology exists," said Drake. "Even under what they claim would be the particularized warrant to go after an American who may be suspected of wrongdoing, then they'd have to flip a switch in order to gain access to the content."

"To say the technology does not exist really begs the question, and do we trust [Alexander's] word for it?" said Drake.

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