Alex Witt   |  June 16, 2013

What it took to get Edward Snowden's security clearance

Former NCIS Special Agent & Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Robert McFadden sits down with Mara Schiavocampo to discuss the NSA leaks and the utilization of the acquired intelligence information while in the field. McFadden gives a practitioner’s perspective on how to distill the massive amount of collected intelligence information. McFadden discusses the deep level of scrutiny and behavioral data to attain the high level of security clearance that Edward Snowden had.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> in a new interview today white house chief of staff dennis mcdonagh described president obama 's reaction to the nsa leaks.

>> president welcomes a public debate on these questions because he does say and he will say again in the days ahead that we have to find the right balance. we have to strike the right balance. and we will not keep ourselves on a perpetual war footing as he said in his speech at the national defense university .

>> joining me now for more on this is robert mcfadden, former ncis special agent and deputy assistant director of counterintelligence who served as co-lead of the " uss cole " bombing investigation. so you've conducted counterterrorism investigations. how key is this kind of data from surveillance programs to putting together these investigations?

>> well, thanks for having me. as a practitioner, although i wasn't led into the program that's now publicly being discussed, we really liked this kind of information because of the potential. and again, what's been discussed publicly about the program where you have the metadata that may represent an electronic footprint, somewhere, say, central asia to an unknown entity in north america . that's the kind of information that can produce leads and investigations and operations to disrupt acts.

>> now, can you get that information in other ways that don't present these questions about breaches of privacy?

>> absolutely. i mean, that's one aspect of the broader spectrum of information collection. intelligence, law enforcement , open source information . but it can be one vital piece. absolutely. for example, from my practitioner's experience of the " uss cole " investigation into al qaeda cell on the arabian peninsula , prior to a program like this, there was information known by a small pocket of the u.s. intelligence community coming from sensitive sources. it was all written about in the 9/11 commission report. where that pocket of the u.s. intelligence community had information derived from sensitive sources about two would-be plotters. in this case, though, it just wasn't shared with others such as i.n.s., state department or the ncis/fbi team conducting the cole investigation.

>> well, it seems like a tremendous amount of information. we're talking about this phone records tracking. it's the phone records of everyone who is a verizon customer that we know about, and maybe there's more data. how do you take that huge amount of information and distill it into something that's useful to you?

>> well, again, from not having direct experience for this program, what we're reading, it is a massive amount of information. and so the government has decided to create new capabilities to cull through that data to conduct a more sophisticated type of link analysis .

>> and what do you think the impact on counterterrorism efforts would be if programs like this were scaled back, if the outcry against them were successful?

>> from a practitioner's perspective i would be disappointed. and i'll say i'm very disappointed about some of the public discourse and the way the information was revealed because we're talking about very sensitive sources and information, methods, perishable type things that may not only save lives but you could be talking about billions of dollars of capability, research, et cetera , that could be wiped out.

>> let's talk a little bit about edward snowden. here are some of the things that we know about him. he's a high school dropout . he had a brief stint in the army. and then he was a security guard turned six-figure i.t. contractor. so how does someone like this get access to our country's most secret information?

>> well, that's a very good topic for discussion because i know from having clearances similar to this there's a deep level of scrutiny when it comes to the application process, the oversight, the investigation, psychological, behavioral data and that sort of thing. very thorough from my perspective. the however is that unfortunately we have situations that on occasion, like this, pop up. now, in my opinion, he like bradley manning should face the consequences of what they're accused of doing.

>> now, since this came out, all this information and information about edward snowden, i have since learned of the number of private contractors who have access in some form or fashion to government information. do you think that that's a big part of the problem here, that there are too many people who shouldn't have access to that information, that can get it in one way or another?

>> well, look, i believe that the public discourse on these types of things with our government, our leaders, and the public is a good thing. however, i'll also say, though, that it is a u.s. government program that grants clearances to contractors. the contractors don't grant themselves clearances. so again, there are many levels of scrutiny that go in here, but obviously in this case something went terribly wrong. particularly if he had anywhere near the level of access that he purports to have had. i find that quite remarkable if not unbelievable.

>> yeah, a lot of people share those questions as well. robert mcfadden, thanks so much for your time, sir.

>> thanks for having me.