Revelations made possible through documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden could cause the deaths of United States diplomats, citizens and soldiers, government officials said Wednesday, and remaining files should be surrendered immediately.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper implored Mr. Snowden during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, DC early Wednesday to hand over what remains of a trove of top-secret documents allegedly still in his possession after fleeing the country last year with a cache of classified material. Officials have claimed the total number of stolen documents could exceed 1.7 million.
Speaking before the committee, DNI Clapper and his colleagues testified that the documents that have already been released to the media by Snowden during the last seven months have caused a significant blow to national security because they exposed an array of sensitive intelligence gathering tactics that have been jeopardized as a result.
Snowden, 30, admitted in June to taking an undisclosed number of documents that in the last half-year have been regularly relied on by the international media for a number of high-profile reports about the US National Security Agency and its British counterpart, the GCHQ. NSA files pilfered from the computer system Snowden had access to as a government contractor and released during the last several months have unveiled a number of previously unreported NSA operations, including those involving dragnet surveillance programs that put the digital lives of millions, if not billions, of individuals across the world into the possession of the US government. US President Barack Obama has already announced plans to reform some of those programs as a result of the debate that has dominated headlines since mid-2012 when the NSA stories based off of Snowden’s leaks started.
“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” Snowden told the Washington Post from Moscow last month. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, however, Clapper and other members of the US intelligence community reiterated earlier claims that the disclosing of those documents has had an immense effect on critical counterterrorism operations.
“As a consequence” of Snowden’s actions, Clapper said, “the nation is less safe and its people less secure” because of what he called “the most massive and damaging threat of intelligence information in our history.”
“Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on US intelligence sources' methods and trade craft and the insights that they are gaining are making our job much, much harder,” Clapper added during his opening statement. “And this includes putting the lives of members or assets of the intelligence community at risk, as well as our armed forces, diplomats and our citizens.”
“Snowden claims that he has won and that his mission is accomplished,” he said at one point during the hearing. “If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed.”
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
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, later told members of the committee that Snowden’s actions have caused “grave damage” to national security, the likes of which will someday be measured not in monetary figures, but by a body count.
"The greatest cost that is unknown today but that we will likely face is the cost of human lives on tomorrow's battlefield or in some place where we will put our military forces when we ask them to go into harm's way," Flynn said.
But while some members of the Senate committee sided with the intelligence community’s assessment without inquiring further, at least two lawmakers used Wednesday’s hearing as an opportunity to inquire further about the legality of those agencies’ operations. During a question-and-answer session with the panel, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) advocated for an expedited review of the NSA’s programs by the US Supreme Court “to determine the constitutionality of these programs” once for all, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), an adamant critic of those operations, urged Clapper and his colleagues for answers about other tools employed by the intelligence community: in particular, he asked Clapper if the US government has relied on Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct any searches on the communications of specific Americans, then later requested information about any instances in which the NSA’s abilities could have been hindered by not having immediate access to the telecommunication records of millions of Americans.
At a Senate hearing last year, Clapper erroneously told Wyden that the NSA does not wittingly collect information on the American people. When Snowden’s leaks began to surface weeks later, the director of national intelligence apologized to Congress for lying.
“I don’t think this culture of misinformation is going to be easily fixed,” Sen. Wyden remarked during this week’s hearing.
The people who last year lied blatantly in this hearing say "grave damage." You do the math.
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) January 29, 2014
“The people who last year lied blatantly in this hearing say ‘grave damage.’ You do the math,” national security blogger Marcy Wheeler opined over Twitter.
Before Wednesday’s hearing concluded, Sen. Wyden also asked that Clapper and company respond in the next 30 days with answers to whether or not the Federal Bureau of Investigation can access cell site information about the geographical locations of Americans without a warrant, and also for the Central Intelligence Agency to explain if the rules of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — a contentious legislated enacted in the 1980s and used today to prosecute alleged hackers — apply to the CIA.
Remember folks: Wyden asks questions at public hearings that he already knows the answer to. We are the intended audience.
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) January 29, 2014
Clapper and Flynn were flanked during Wednesday’s hearing by CIA Director John Brennan, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen and FBI Director James Comey. Snowden, meanwhile, remains in Russia where he was recently granted an extension on the asylum request approved in August. When asked during this week's hearing if he believes Russia has gained access to the documents taken by Snowden, Clapper said he wouldn't answer in an unclassified session.