WASHINGTON – A top lawmaker said Thursday that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden might not have acted alone when he leaked information about U.S. surveillance programs.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that Snowden’s leaks have inflicted “significant” and, in many cases, “irreversible” damage to U.S. national security.
“We have seen certain al-Qaeda affiliates already change the way that they communicate,” Rogers said at a Washington Post Live panel on cybersecurity. “That means now we have a gap that we’re gonna have to fill. Anytime we get a gap in coverage it becomes incredibly dangerous.”
These changes have spread to at least three other terror organizations, which has dampened the ability to detect and disrupt threats against the U.S., Rogers said.
Rogers did not say directly whether he suspects Snowden had help. But after the panel’s moderator, the Post’s David Ignatius, asked the congressman to clarify his remarks, he said: “There may have been help in his search queries and some of the security measures that he circumvented in the process of taking and running to China.”
“It raises more questions than it answers in how he got around certain things and the kinds of queries he was doing would have been beyond what he knew existed and what his assignments were,” he said.
His “smash-and-grab” and run to “the bastions of Internet freedom, China and Russia” has left some things that do not add up quite yet, Rogers said.
The U.S. weaknesses in cyber defense have only been exacerbated by Snowden’s leaks, which have shattered public trust in the intelligence community, he said.
Gen. Michael Hayden suggested there was another explanation for Snowden’s access. He said Snowden was not “suddenly offended by something he came across”; in fact, he had undertaken a “sustained, long-term campaign” to obtain information from the NSA.
“It is inexplicable as to how someone of his background would have access to so much information until you then begin to add in some of the specifics,’ Hayden said. “He had moved from job to job in order to facilitate his taking of this information.”
That explanation did not prove but was “not inconsistent” with Rogers’ concerns about Snowden receiving help, Hayden noted.
He said what makes Snowden a particular threat to the intelligence community is that he is “someone who’s not leaking particular secrets, but he’s leaking how it is we gain these secrets.”
“This is going to be the gift that keeps on taking from the American intelligence community over a very long period of time,” he said.
Hayden, who headed the CIA and the NSA at different times, said the leaks will lead to a lack of trust in the U.S. government’s ability to keep secrets.
“Why would anyone, domestic or foreign, be willing to have confidence in the United States to undertake anything that requires any kind of discretion … in order to go do things that are lawful, appropriate, effective, but edgy?” he said.
Hayden also joked about putting Edward Snowden on a target list, referring to the recent announcement Snowden has been shortlisted for the EU’s top human rights award.
“I must admit in my darker moments over the past several months, I’d also thought of nominating Mr. Snowden, but it was for a different list,” Hayden said.
He added the emerging cyber threat is from a kind of digital mass shooter, a dangerous hacker able to obtain cyber weapons only available to organized crime or national governments.
“They’re just mad, they’re mad at the world,” Hayden said. “They may have demands that you or I cannot understand.”
Within five years hackers will acquire the capabilities that we now associate with criminal gangs or nation states to conduct cyber-attacks like sabotaging power plants, factories, and utilities, he warned.
The former CIA chief said Snowden had a role to play in the stagnant cybersecurity legislation. The House passed a version of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) earlier this year, co-sponsored by Rogers.
“One of the long-term ill effects of Snowden was that it was tough enough for the chairman to get CISPA through when the waters were calm. And now he is trying to do it in white water rapids. And it is not going to happen,” Hayden said.
A previous version of the bill failed to gain traction in the Senate last year and many lawmakers have said that CISPA in 2013 is dead. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced last month she is working on a draft bill that will complement CISPA.
But one thing that is moving forward in Congress is legislation to improve transparency at the NSA.
Rogers said he will introduce legislation this month to increase transparency at the NSA and restore confidence in the U.S. intelligence programs. His bill would allow NSA to declassify information that would better inform the American public about the scope of the agency’s operations.
“We are trying to find some confidence builders that we think can address the public’s concerns and still protect these programs,” Rogers said.
He said the NSA is subject to full oversight by Congress and the administration and defended the agency’s record of violations, noting that in the last 10 years there were 12 violations, all of which have been dealt with.
“There is no system in the United States government – and, I would argue, state government – that is more overseen than these programs,” Rogers said.