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WASHINGTON – Former defense secretary and Maine Sen. William Cohen said Tuesday that the NSA surveillance controversy shows that too many people are being given access to classified information but expressed confidence in congressional oversight of intelligence programs.

Speaking to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Cohen said the proliferation of people with “top secret” clearances may mean that people are not fully vetted. Cohen, who served as defense secretary to President Bill Clinton, said the federal government also needs to take steps to prevent someone like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden from being able to download classified information.

“Procedures have to be tightened up,” said Cohen, a Bangor native who represented Maine the U.S. Senate for 18 years. “And I think one of the real aspects of this scandal is that someone like Snowden can have access to that information then take it and, before we even know it’s gone, disseminate it to the world.”

Cohen also called it “absurd” that Snowden could “take the law into his own hands” by publicly releasing classified documents and then be viewed as a hero by some.

“Heroes don’t break the law,” Cohen said. “They comply with the law. There is a process whereby they can voice their dissent and eventually have their views heard by elected members of Congress.”

There is currently a robust debate on Capitol Hill – and around the country – about whether Congress has adequate oversight of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism programs and whether those programs are invading the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

Although all members of Congress have access to some classified information, a select few who serve on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees can receive briefings on the most confidential programs.

Both Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King began serving on Senate Intelligence earlier this year.

Collins has said she had no knowledge of the NSA phone and internet data collection activities prior to the recent revelations, despite serving as the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. While Collins has defended aspects of the programs, she said last Friday that the Obama administration should be more forthcoming with the American public about terrorist plots thwarted as a result of the surveillance and that the administration should brief more members of Congress.

In the MSNBC segment, Cohen said he believes “some very talented people” are overseeing those activities and that he believes they are striking a balance between security and protecting citizens’ privacy.

“We have to have a measure of confidence in our elected officials that proper oversight is being exerted,” Cohen said. “If it’s not, they ought to be held accountable.”

The problem, according to critics of the programs, is that the public often only learns about top-secret surveillance tactics after they’ve been leaked to the media. Additionally, confidence in Congress has dropped to an all-time low. According to a Gallup poll released last week, just 10 percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress.

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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