Secrecy News

Leaks Damaged U.S. Intelligence, Official Says

Unauthorized disclosures of classified information by Edward Snowden have damaged U.S. intelligence capabilities, National Counterterrorism Center director Nicholas J. Rasmussen told Congress last week.

“Due to the Snowden leaks and other disclosures, terrorists also have a great understanding of how we seek to conduct surveillance including our methods, our tactics and the scope and scale of our efforts. They’ve altered the ways in which they communicate and this has led to a decrease in collection,” Mr. Rasmussen said at a February 12 hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“We have specific examples which I believe we have shared with the committee and the committee staff in classified session — specific examples of terrorists who have adopted greater security measures such as using various new types of encryption, terrorists who have dropped or changed email addresses, and terrorists who have simply stopped communicating in ways they had before, in part because they understand how we collected,” he said.

This is not terribly persuasive, particularly since Mr. Rasmussen did not specify which leaks resulted in which changes by which terrorists at what cost to U.S. security. Nor is a public statement by an intelligence official before the Senate Intelligence Committee entitled any longer to a presumption of accuracy since the Committee permits errors to stand uncorrected.

Nevertheless, it seems plausible that leaks which had the power to galvanize public debate over the scope of intelligence surveillance might also have had the power to undermine existing collection capabilities, including collection for valid and necessary purposes.

For some of Edward Snowden’s partisans and supporters, however, the possibility that his leaks had negative as well as positive consequences involves more complexity than they can tolerate. If Snowden intended to defend constitutional values, as he insists, then how dare anyone suggest that he may have also aided America’s enemies, even indirectly?

This sort of complexity does not arise in Laura Poitras’s award-winning film Citizenfour about Snowden, as its few critical reviewers have noted.

Many of the documents Snowden disclosed “go far beyond exposures of spying on Americans,” wrote Fred Kaplan in a review of the film in Slate. “If Snowden and company wanted to take down an intelligence agency, they should say so. But that has nothing to do with whistleblowing or constitutional rights.”

Likewise, wrote George Packer in The New Yorker, “Among the leaked documents are details of foreign-intelligence gathering that do not fall under the heading of unlawful threats to American democracy–what Snowden described as his only concern. [Former NSA official William] Binney, generally a fervent Snowden supporter, told USA Today that Snowden’s references to ‘hacking into China’ went too far: ‘So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor’.”

And from Michael Cohen in The Daily Beast: “What is left out of Poitras’s highly sympathetic portrayal of Snowden is so much of what we still don’t know about him. For example, why did he steal so many documents that have nothing to do with domestic surveillance but rather overseas–and legal–intelligence-gathering operations?”

But for a discussion of Citizenfour that presents no such dissonant, skeptical notes or troublesome opposing views, see the late David Carr’s final interview with Snowden, Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.

“How’d you like the movie?” Mr. Carr asked Snowden. “It’s incredible,” Mr. Snowden affirmed. “I don’t think there’s any film like it.”