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Secrecy backfired, ex-NSA official says

WASHINGTON — The decision to keep secret the National Security Agency’s collection of American calling records was a strategic blunder that set the stage for Edward Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures and ultimately harmed US national security, the agency’s former inspector general told NSA employees in a blunt talk Friday.

‘‘You now live in a glass house,’’ Joel Brenner, the NSA inspector general from 2002 to 2006, said in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of congressional hearings into the intelligence scandals of the Watergate era. ‘‘How could anyone think the bulk collection program would remain secret?’’

It’s not that there no longer can be national security secrets, said Brenner, a lawyer who was the top US counterintelligence official when he retired in 2009, but ‘‘the idea that the broad rules governing your activities — not specific operations, but the broad rules — can be kept secret is a delusion. And they should not be kept secret.’’

Snowden, a former NSA systems administrator, has said he decided to leak thousands of top-secret documents to journalists because of what he viewed as deception by the country’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, when he denied to Congress in 2013 that the United States was collecting records on millions of Americans.

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Clapper and other officials have said they wished the government had been more transparent about the NSA program that since 2002 has collected and stored records of nearly all American landline phone calls for use in counterterrorism investigations, but none put it as starkly as Brenner did.

Congress is now debating whether to end the program before the Patriot Act provisions allowing it expire on June 1.

‘‘If you disagree with me on this, do your own damage assessment,’’ Brenner said, according to text of his remarks that he provided. ‘‘In the wake of Snowden, our country has lost control of the geopolitical narrative; our companies have lost more than $100 billion in business, and counting.’’

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Intelligence collection ‘‘has surely suffered,’’ he said, as has NSA morale. ‘‘The damage from the Snowden leaks to American foreign intelligence operations, to American prestige, and to American power . . . has unquestionably been vastly greater’’ than if the George W. Bush administration had gone to Congress in 2002 to seek legislation authorizing the collection of US phone records.

The Bush administration didn’t want to do that for political reasons, he said, and neither did the Obama administration.

Instead, both presidents relied on a classified interpretation of the law by a secret intelligence court. And the NSA collected the records secretly.

When Snowden revealed the program in 2013, ‘‘the argument that the agency was operating under ‘secret law’ had legs with the public, much of which is allergic to bulk collection and doubts its value,’’ Brenner said.

‘‘Everyone associated with these various programs thought that he was a patriot acting in the national interest,’’ he said, ‘‘which is precisely why subjective notions of patriotism and national security are insufficient guides.’’