The most powerful intelligence official in the United States told a Senate committee Wednesday that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is a hypocrite and that he and his supposed accomplices should return any classified documents he still has.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said in an unusually contentious Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that Snowden’s decision to leak a trove of classified NSA documents to the press has hurt US security and tipped off suspected terrorists on potentially safer ways to communicate. Clapper, who told the same committee the NSA did not collect information on millions of Americans months before being proven wrong, also insinuated that Snowden had help.
“Snowden claims that he has won and that his mission is accomplished,” Clapper said during his opening remarks to the committee, as quoted by a transcript published by the Washington Post. “If that is so, I call on him and accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to US security.”
The director did not elaborate on what he meant by “accomplices,” but a spokesman insisted he was “referring to anyone who is assisting Edward Snowden to further threaten our national security through the unauthorized disclosure of stolen documents related to lawful foreign intelligence collection programs.”
A number of journalists on Twitter interpreted that as a threat to Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras, and the number of other reporters who have published information based on the Snowden documents.
Clapper calls on "Snowden & his *accomplices*" -- I guess he means us? -- to "facilitate the return" of the document trove.
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) January 29, 2014
Aside from his introductory outburst Clapper spent most of the remainder of the hearing deflecting questions.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was among the visibly frustrated. Wyden is the same lawmaker who asked Clapper in March about massive data collection programs and scolded Clapper Wednesday, accusing top intelligence officials or partaking in a “culture of misinformation” when questioned about the programs Snowden revealed.
“This committee can’t do oversight if we can’t get direct answers,” Wyden said, adding that international trust in the FBI, CIA, and NSA “has been seriously undermined by senior officials’ reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements.”
Wyden pressed Clapper to provide details on whether any searches have ever been conducted on information US citizens “sent over the web or in the cloud” and whether the NSA had conducted or is continuing to conduct “warrantless searches” on individual Americans.
“Senator Wyden, I think, at a threat hearing, this would…I would prefer not to discuss this and have this as a separate subject,” Clapper responded. “There are very complex legal issues here, I just don’t think this is the appropriate time or place.”
US President Obama has not only kept Clapper as part of the administration but effectively endorsed the director earlier this month when Obama announced that the polarizing data collection programs employed by the NSA would not be eliminated. Still, six lawmakers led by California congressman Darrell Issa signed a letter to Obama Monday seeking Clapper’s dismissal.
“The continued role of James Clapper as director of national intelligence is incompatible with the goal of restoring trust in our security programs and ensuring the highest level of transparency,” they wrote.
The White House announced Clapper would not be fired by end of the same day.
Clapper was more specific about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, where he claimed that Al-Qaeda has found strength in the uncertain political situation in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere.
He said counterterrorism officials now estimate that 7,000 fighters have streamed into Syria from 50 other countries, creating the fear that extremists will use Syrian passports to enter and attack the US. The war-torn country is “in some respects a new FATA,” a reference to the Pakistani tribal region that Al-Qaeda leadership has made its home. Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda-backed rebel group that has become one of the most feared rebel factions in Syria “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland,” Clapper said.