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Much Anticipated Russia Hearings To Begin By Senate Intelligence Committee

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Senate intelligence committee convenes two long-anticipated hearings today and tomorrow. This morning, senators will question the nation's top intelligence officials and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That will be one of the topics. Their specific concern is a section of the FISA act that allows government officials in the U.S. to collect communications between Americans and foreign targets overseas without having to get a warrant. On Thursday, former director of the FBI testifies before the Senate intelligence committee.

With us to talk about all this is Clinton Watts. He's a former FBI special agent, currently a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.

Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

CLINTON WATTS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First, let's get to the questions surrounding FISA and the specific section, 702. What is that?

WATTS: Essentially, it's the parameters under which the intelligence services, if there is an American involved, can collect intelligence. Usually, it's in electronic form - but can do that intelligence gathering with what's a lower probable cause than would be seen in standard U.S. criminal code. And that is basically due to protect the national interest or national security against foreign agents. And so this would be any sort of espionage case or counterterrorism cases, predominately, since 9/11.

MARTIN: So why is it so important to the intelligence community in this moment?

WATTS: I think in this case, it's going to come back because we're seeing it tied to a political campaign. And this is the strange part of the 2016 election, is that we have individuals that might have been or could have been working with a foreign government to sway the election in one direction or another. And that's an unusual thing for us to see this. And I think the question is, was this FISA used for that purpose? And what were the connections they were looking for?

MARTIN: I want to switch gears here. Given the intelligence leaks lately - most recently, the National Security Agency document that was published by The Intercept - what does - what does this say about the mood within the intelligence community in general?

WATTS: I feel like the intelligence community probably feels like they're under siege, both from the public to prove their case - whether it's that Russia was involved or Russia wasn't involved - and then also from President Trump. He's been very negative towards the intelligence community and different parts of the U.S. government, as we've seen with the FBI. He's not trusted FBI Director Comey and has even put pressure on other parts of the intelligence community to suppress FBI Director Comey.

So it's a bizarre mood of - where they feel under siege. And I think that's why you're seeing a lot of these leaks come out.

MARTIN: So practically speaking then, what happens inside intelligence agencies when there is a leak like this one?

WATTS: You'll see internal investigators go about doing a counterintelligence investigation, essentially trying to identify the source of those leaks. They'll look to see who had access to this compartmentalized information, and then they'll become - they'll start with doing interviews, and then they can even do polygraph examinations to try and flush out what the truth is or who the source of that information is.

MARTIN: I mean, we should say one woman has been arrested, we believe, in connection with that intercept leak. But you're saying they're still going to investigate further because you never know who else might be involved.

WATTS: Exactly, and there's been more than one leak, so they're going to look at each of these different agencies. They're going to see who's leaking this information.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WATTS: It's to send a message that secrets need to remain secret.

MARTIN: Former FBI Special Agent Clinton Watts. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S, "THE REST IS NOISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.