House intel committee wants to know if Edward Snowden works for China (UPDATED)

House committee intelligence leaders today revealed the government is looking into whether or not National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is working for a foreign intelligence agency. "He’s already done serious harm and he’s stating things that are, candidly, not correct. Clearly, we’re going to make sure that there’s a thorough scrub of what his ...

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House committee intelligence leaders today revealed the government is looking into whether or not National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is working for a foreign intelligence agency.

"He's already done serious harm and he's stating things that are, candidly, not correct. Clearly, we're going to make sure that there's a thorough scrub of what his China connections are, and there's a lot of questions there that seem unusual," said Rep. Mike Rogers (shown above), chair of the House intelligence committee after a closed-door briefing from NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander on the Agency's classified programs that are said to be gathering telephone and Internet metadata on Americans.

"It seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for protection of the Chinese government and giving press conferences to Chinese media," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger, the committee's ranking Democrat. "We're going to investigate."

House committee intelligence leaders today revealed the government is looking into whether or not National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is working for a foreign intelligence agency.

"He’s already done serious harm and he’s stating things that are, candidly, not correct. Clearly, we’re going to make sure that there’s a thorough scrub of what his China connections are, and there’s a lot of questions there that seem unusual," said Rep. Mike Rogers (shown above), chair of the House intelligence committee after a closed-door briefing from NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander on the Agency’s classified programs that are said to be gathering telephone and Internet metadata on Americans.

"It seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for protection of the Chinese government and giving press conferences to Chinese media," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger, the committee’s ranking Democrat. "We’re going to investigate."

However, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, told reporters hours later that, "we have no indication that [Snowden] is connected with the Chinese."

Still, "he’s in Hong Kong so obviously we’re concerned about it," said Chambliss after a separate Capitol Hill briefing on the matter for 47 Senators by Alexander, Director of Natonal Intelligence James Clapper and five other senior intelligence community officials.

Rogers said that Snowden was a "low-level individual, but because of his position in the IT system, had access to information that, candidly, he did not understand or have the full scope of what these programs were."

Chambliss said the goverment needs to revamp the way it screens people with access to highly-classified information.

"I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve got to do a better job of making sure that a top secret clearance would go to only those people that deserve it and that we monitor all of those people who have a top secret clearance from time to time and we reveiw their cases to determine whether there’s any reason to suspect they may have compromised U.S. intelligence in some way," said Chambliss. "I think there are some changes that we’re gonna look at."

Snowden has publicly denied being "a traitor" despite his choice to flee to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. "I acted in good faith," he said.

The information he leaked was published by the Guardian the same week that U.S. President Barack Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss cyber espionage, among other things.

The chairman added that he thought there was no way Snowden could tap into any American’s email or phone, as he claimed.

The two then vigorously defended the NSA programs that are alleged to be gathering metadata on millions of Americans’ cellphone and Internet activities, reiterating Gen. Alexander’s claim that they have prevented dozens of terrorist attacks and vowing to release specific information on these attacks in the coming week.

"The more we know, the more dangerous this situation becomes, it exposes our allies, we think, [to danger] and the changes we see that are already being made by those folks that wish to do us harm and our allies harm," said Rogers. 

"We’ve ratcheted up the timeframe for declassification of certain events so the American public can see the full spectrum of successes of these programs while protecting civil liberties and privacy, you can do both, we think this program does both," said Rogers. "We hope to have that next week."

Ruppersburger said a minimum of ten attacks have been thwarted while Rogers said the number is far more than ten, with specific information to come later in the week.

Furthermore, Rogers accused Rep. Loretta Sanchez of being "irresponsible" for saying on C-Span’s Washington Journal yesterday that the NSA’s intelligence gathering is far bigger "than what is out in the media today."

Sanchez stood by her comments, telling Killer Apps:

"Information that is disclosed in classified briefings is obviously sensitive data and cannot be discussed. However, what I will say is that many of my colleagues in Congress and I were clearly surprised to learn in media reports that the NSA has been utilizing this type of surveillance. In the future the NSA should be more forthcoming and hold regular briefings with all Members of Congress. I also believe it is in the NSA’s best interest to declassify some of the processes the Agency undertakes so that we as a country can engage in an educated, thoughtful debate on a balance between our security and civil liberties.  "

This comes the same day that Senate intelligence committee members Ron Wyden and Mark Udall said that they have seen no evidence that Americans have been made safer by the "bulk" collection of telephone and Internet metadata.

"We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence. Gen. Alexander’s testimony yesterday suggested that the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program helped thwart ‘dozens’ of terrorist attacks, but all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods. The public deserves a clear explanation," Udall and Wyden said in a statement today. "We look forward to reviewing the analysis that the general has promised to provide showing how the intelligence community arrived at these numbers. In our view, a key measure of the effectiveness of the bulk collection program will be whether it provided any intelligence that couldn’t be obtained through other methods."

Rogers defended the programs despite his colleagues’ criticsm.

"This is one of the most overseen programs by separate branches, all three of them, the courts, the congress, and the executive branch and then multiple checks and oversights within the executive branch itself, it is really, really scrutinized pretty heavily and used sparingly," said Rogers.

He insisted that the NSA’s programs only gather metadata on people’s phone numbers "or in some cases, a direct email" address. The government — via the FBI — can only examine the contents of those domestic messages with a court warrant, he added.

"The business records that are obtained from the companies have no names, they have no subscriber information" only phone numbers, said Rogers.

The business records program he was referring to has also been referred to lately as Section 215 authority. That is where the government can petition a court to order businesses to release data on its customers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

During a senate hearing yesterday, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said that Section 215 can be used to get a business to turn over phone records, medical records, tax records, Internet search records and credit card records. Government requests for Section 215 authority increased from 21 requests in 2009, to 212 requests in 2012, according to Durbin. Both Alexander yesterday and Rogers today said that the NSA is only collecting telephone metadata.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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