The Snowden Aftermath (Revised)

Intelligence leaks may have caused damage, but it's not irreparable.

Photo by Mandel Ngan / AFP
Photo by Mandel Ngan / AFP

To hear some of America’s top intelligence officials tell it, the damage the most famous leaker in history inflicted on U.S. spying might not be as severe as previously thought, and the storm that beset the National Security Agency when former contractor Edward Snowden exposed a trove of top-secret documents to journalists may finally be subsiding.

In public remarks and in interviews, both the new director of the NSA, Adm. Michael Rogers, and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, call the leaks significant, but neither portrays the aftermath as irreversible nor unrecoverable. The shift in tone among America’s top spies is strikingly different from when Snowden first opened his files in June 2013. Then-NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander warned that "people will die" because circulating that information publicly would make it harder for the agency and its foreign allies to foil terrorist plots. The leaks, Alexander said, caused "the greatest damage to our combined nations’ intelligence systems that we have ever suffered."

But now, a more optimistic perspective is taking hold, just as Rogers tries to move beyond a hellish year and boost morale at the NSA, where employees are eager to build new spying systems to replace the ones they may have lost, said several former officials who maintain close ties to the agency.

"You have not heard me as the director say, ‘Oh, my God, the sky is falling,’" Rogers told the New York Times in June, in his most extensive remarks about the leak fallout. That comment seemed to regrind the lens through which the entire Snowden affair should be seen. "I am trying to be very specific and very measured in my characterizations," Rogers said.

Earlier that month, Rogers also downplayed speculation that Snowden was a Russian spy and that his leaks were part of a plot to undermine U.S. national security. "Could he have [been a spy]? Possibly. Do I believe that’s the case? Probably not," Rogers said at a conference. That put the NSA chief at odds with purveyors of conventional Washington wisdom. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Michigan Republican Mike Rogers (no relation), had suggested to NBC’s Meet the Press in January that it was no accident Snowden made his way to Moscow after exposing the NSA’s secrets. And in early June Alexander had told Bloomberg Television, "I think he’s working for them," meaning the Russians. "I wouldn’t go so far as to say a double agent, but he’s working for someone."

The NSA’s Rogers isn’t a lone voice. In an interview with the Washington Post in June, Clapper said that the former NSA computer administrator couldn’t access as many sensitive documents as investigators previously thought. "We’re still investigating, but we think that a lot of what he looked at, he couldn’t pull down," Clapper said. "Some things we thought he got he apparently didn’t."

Any hint of revisionism doesn’t sit well with some of the intelligence agencies’ overseers. Reacting to the NSA director’s comments to the Times, Rep. Rogers told Foreign Policy: "I’m certainly hoping that [his] comments were taken out of context … because that is completely inconsistent with what we have seen in the Intelligence Committee."

The congressman said Snowden put U.S. forces overseas at greater risk of attack by terrorists and militants. The NSA director’s remarks could be seen as "flippant," the lawmaker said, adding that he was "frustrated" by any attempts to downplay the Snowden damage. Admiral Rogers "will have a chance to explain to the committee why he’s saying that," the congressman added. (A spokesperson for the NSA had no comment for this story.)

The panel’s top Democrat, Maryland’s Dutch Ruppersberger, echoed the chairman’s concerns. "I think the damage is as severe as any individual who has turned on his country," Ruppersberger told FP. The congressman even averred that the extent of the harm is "worse that people have been saying." The Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that "80 to 90 percent" of the information Snowden stole concerns current military operations, which could be jeopardized, he expanded.

The NSA’s Rogers does not think the fallout was without grave consequences. "I have seen groups not only talk about making changes [as a result of exposed intelligence-gathering methods] — I have seen them make changes," he told the Times. But then Rogers made his comment about the sky not falling, suggesting that America’s adversaries had not entirely evaded detection.

Likewise, Clapper called the effects of the leaks "profound," but his remarks contrasted with previous estimates that Snowden took more than 1.7 million classified documents, all of which were highly sensitive. That cache purportedly included what one top NSA official told CBS’s 60 Minutes were "the keys to the kingdom" or the "road map" to avoiding the NSA’s electronic sentries. But, the Post reported, intelligence officials now think prior estimates, including that Snowden potentially compromised the military’s command-and-control communications networks, "may have been too extreme."

In interviews this week, former intelligence officials sought to strike a similar balance as Rogers and Clapper. "I think it was a catastrophe," one former senior intelligence official who has relationships with NSA employees said. "However, I think that now that NSA has looked at it, they have a sense of what [Snowden] took, and they’re being more precise about the damage he caused. It’s probably not irreparable, but it’s a setback."

Former NSA Director Mike McConnell recently told a conference audience that his successor is trying to boost morale: "As director of NSA, your first responsibility is to be the chief cheerleader." McConnell said that "no spy has done more damage" than Snowden and that Snowden gave away the "guidebook" for how the NSA secretly monitors phone conversations, emails, and other digital ephemera. But he tempered that harsh assessment with a hopeful outlook.

"If we have the will and the resources and we stay with it, we will be able to recover at some time," said McConnell, who also served as a director of national intelligence under George W. Bush.

If Rogers is trying to lift NSA employees’ spirits, it’s for a practical and necessary goal, said another former senior U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified when discussing the inner workings of the agency. "Whatever Snowden did, the NSA has to find a way to succeed. It must prevail against the challenges it faces. What Rogers is saying is this can’t be the end of the world."

Last year Alexander was trying to grab people’s attention, particularly on Capitol Hill, with his dire rhetoric, said the former official. (Another who worked with Alexander called his former colleague’s word choices occasionally "hyperbolic.")

"I think he [Alexander] was putting an exclamation point behind very real concerns," the first former official said, adding that he also sides more with the retired general’s severe appraisal. "People have to know that lives hang in the balance."

How does that square with Rogers’s statements, which suggest the worst may be over? "I think they can both be right," the former official said.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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