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'Arrogant' Snowden putting lives at risk, says NSA's deputy spyboss

President Madison would be proud, we just need better PR, huffs bigwig

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TED 2014 Two days after NSA leaker Edward Snowden addressed the latest TED technology jamboree in robot form, the US intelligence agency has also made an appearance – with deputy director Richard Ledgett dialing in by video link.

Ledgett said the NSA's core problem was that it was lousy at PR, rather than that it was invading innocent people's privacy. The bigwig said that the former US President James Madison, one of the key writers of the US Constitution, "would be proud" that the checks and balances he helped install still worked in today's digital age.

"I think there's an amazing arrogance to the idea that [Snowden] knows better than the framers of the Constitution how the government should be designed to work in terms of separation of powers," he told TED 2014. "That's extremely arrogant on his part."

Snowden gives whistleblowers a bad name, Ledgett asserted, and the techie should have gone to his line manager if he had complaints. This ignores the fact that, as a contractor, he had no whistleblower protection under the law, not to mention was aware of what happened to other NSA staff who complained – such as William Binney, who was arrested at gunpoint in his shower and spent five years in legal limbo.

Ledgett said that the documents Snowden was responsible for leaking were full of "half-truths and distortions." As a result, the intelligence-gathering facilities of the US had been damaged.

"The actions that he took were inappropriate because of the fact that he put people's lives at risk in the long run. The capabilities [of the NSA] are applied in very discreet, measured, controlled ways," the deputy director said.

"Unconstrained disclosure of those capabilities means that as adversaries see them, they move away and say, 'Hey, I might be vulnerable to that.' We've seen that. The net effect is our people who are overseas…are at greater risk because we don't see the threats that are coming their way."

Ledgett did acknowledge that he could see why the sudden exposure of the abilities of the agency to intercept and record the metadata and content of people's private communications worldwide. But that was a PR issue the agency could address, he said.

"There are things that we need to be transparent about, our authorities, our oversight," he said. "We at NSA have not done a good enough job at that, and I think that's why this has been so sensational in the media."

He claimed the agency only slurped the communications of targeted individuals, and said that the vast majority of people who weren't on the target list had nothing to fear from his spies. This is contradicted by NSA inspector general Dr George Ellard, who found plenty of cases where NSA staff had abused their privileges, even going so far as to check out potential dates in so-called LOVEINT operations.

“We don’t sit there and grind out metadata profiles of average people. If you’re not connected to one of those intelligence targets, you’re not of interest to us,” Ledgett insisted. ®

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