It was supposed to be the annual worldwide threat briefing, in which the most senior U.S. intelligence officials brief members of Congress in open session on the emerging threats facing the nation.
But this year, almost from the very beginning, the hearing deteriorated into a pointed discussion of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information pertaining to global surveillance programs, and the deleterious impact of the media’s handling of the data.
“What Snowden has stolen and exposed goes way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in testimony Jan. 29 before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He characterized the leaks as “the most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history.”
Clapper said Snowden’s revelations have caused “profound damage” to U.S. national security by forcing the loss of some important intelligence sources, damaging important information-sharing relationships with key allies, and enabling terrorist organizations to avoid surveillance.
“We’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners,” Clapper said. “We’re beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries.”
Clapper was not alone in his assessment. Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the dispersion of terrorist groups around the world has placed a premium on the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor their communications. But the Snowden leaks have made that more difficult, he said.
“What we’ve seen in the last six to eight months is an awareness by these groups of our ability to monitor communications and specific instances where they’ve changed the ways in which they communicate to avoid” surveillance, Olsen said. “It certainly puts us at risk of missing something that we are trying to see, which could lead to … an attack.”
Lawmakers zeroed in on the intelligence community’s frustration with the media’s handling of the Snowden leaks and the lionization of a man most U.S. officials believe to be a traitor responsible for stealing information pertaining to much more than just the controversial NSA surveillance programs.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the number of documents stolen by Snowden would fill a stack of paper three miles high.
“They pertain to the entire intelligence community and include information about military intelligence, our defense capabilities [and] the defense industry,” she said.
Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said within a week’s time DIA would provide a detailed report and briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee on the extent of Snowden’s leaks, which the Pentagon has estimated could be as high as 2 million documents.
Meanwhile, Snowden continues to provide interviews to select media outlets from his refuge in Moscow. In a Jan. 26 interview with German television, Snowden railed against anonymous government officials quoted in a tabloid Web story as wanting to kill him.
“But I don’t lose sleep,” Snowden said. “Because I’ve done what I feel I needed to do.”
Clapper openly sneered at Snowden’s claims of moral superiority, and went as far as to characterize those who have published the information as accomplices.
“I won’t dwell on Snowden’s motivations or legal standing, or on the supreme ironies associated with his choice of freedom loving-nations and beacons of free expression from which to rail about what an Orwellian state his thinks this country has become,” Clapper said.
“Snowden claims that he’s won and that his mission is accomplished,” he continued. “If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.”