NSA whistle-blower violated law, says former top military adviser

“From my perspective, it’s against the law, and it’s against the oath he took”, said the former chief military advisor to both Presidents George W Bush and Obama, following an address at the recent Gartner Security & Risk Management Summit near Washington DC.

Mullen’s comments came at the tail end of a keynote address, where he cited a lack of political leadership and cybersecurity-related vulnerabilities among his primary concerns facing the US.

Responding to a question about the PRISM leak from Ellen Messmer of Network World, Mullen added: “I understand enough about the program to know that the damage has been done. That’s not why we take oaths in this country to serve. From my perspective it was a huge breach. It needs to be dealt with accordingly.”

The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did seek a silver lining in the PRISM disclosure, reflecting that it may lead to an open debate on choices the US must make in the cyber world as the nation seeks to balance issues of personal freedom versus its security.

“I worry about, in the cyber world, what I would call a cyber-9/11”, Mullen continued. He then referenced the now stalled Senate bill, the Cybersecurity Act, as being a “first step” toward avoiding such a calamity.

“The question I have is will we have to get to a cyber-9/11 to pass laws we need”, to ensure such cyber-attacks are avoided. He also referenced polls in the immediate aftermath of the Operation PRISM disclosure that showed Americans overwhelmingly (by a nearly 2-to-1 margin) favored the surveillance program as a legitimate means to prevent terrorist attacks.

Mullen said the PRISM disclosure will require Americans openly contemplate the value of these surveillance techniques and balance the potential benefits against ideals like privacy and personal liberties. “This is why responsible leadership in the information technology world is so critical”, he asserted, citing social networks as powerful tools that can be used for both positive political change, but also highly destructive terrorist ends.

He asserted that responsible leaders at social networking firms will play a critical role in helping to balance these choices as well.

It was earlier this week that Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, told a US House intelligence committee that the PRISM program was responsible for stopping 50 terrorist incidents in the US and abroad. Alexander said PRISM’s monitoring of foreigners’ activity on social media sites helped thwart about 90% of these incidents, but was not as clear about the role the NSA and FBI's phone tracking program had in preventing these incidents, according to a report by Politico.

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