Whistle-blower or traitor, leaker or public hero? US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid off US government surveillance methods five years ago, but intelligence chiefs complain that revelations from the trove of classified documents he disclosed are still trickling out.
That includes recent reporting on a mass surveillance program run by close US ally Japan and on how the NSA targeted bitcoin users to gather intelligence to combat narcotics and money laundering.
The Intercept, an investigative publication with access to Snowden documents, published stories on both subjects.
The top US counterintelligence official said journalists have released only about 1 percent taken by the 34-year-old American, now living in exile in Russia, “so we don’t see this issue ending anytime soon.”
“This past year, we had more international, Snowden-related documents and breaches than ever,” US National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Bill Evanina said at a recent conference. “Since 2013, when Snowden left, there have been thousands of articles around the world with really sensitive stuff that’s been leaked.”
On June 5, 2013, the Guardian newspaper in Britain published the first story based on Snowden’s disclosures. It revealed that a secret court order was allowing the US government to get Verizon to share the telephone records of millions of Americans.
Later stories, including those in the Washington Post, disclosed other snooping and how US and British spy agencies had accessed information from cables carrying the world’s telephone and Internet traffic.
Snowden’s defenders maintain that the US government has for years exaggerated the damage his disclosures caused.
Intercept cofounder and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald said there are “thousands upon thousands of documents” that journalists have chosen not to publish because they would harm peoples’ reputation or privacy rights or because it would expose “legitimate surveillance programs.”
“It’s been almost five years since newspapers around the world began reporting on the Snowden archive and the NSA has offered all kinds of shrill and reckless rhetoric about the ‘damage’ it has caused, but never any evidence of a single case of a life being endangered let alone harmed,” Greenwald said.
US intelligence officials say they are still counting the cost of his disclosures that went beyond actual intelligence collected to how it was collected.
Evanina said intelligence agencies are finishing their seventh classified assessment of the damage.
Joel Melstad, a spokesman for the center, said five US intelligence agencies contributed to the latest damage assessment, which is highly classified.
Melstad said damage has been observed or verified in five categories of information.
Snowden-disclosed documents have put US personnel or facilities at risk around the world, damaged intelligence collection efforts, exposed tools used to amass intelligence, destabilized US partnerships abroad and exposed US intelligence operations, capabilities and priorities, Melstad said.
“With each additional disclosure, the damage is compounded — providing more detail to what our adversaries have already learned,” he said.
Steven Aftergood, a declassification expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said he thinks intelligence agencies are continuing to do Snowden damage assessments since the disclosures’ relevance to foreign targets might take time to recognize and understand.
He said the way that intelligence targets adapt based on information revealed and the impact on how the US collects intelligence could continue for years, but any damage that Snowden caused to US intelligence partners abroad would have been felt immediately after the disclosures began in 2013.
Snowden supporters say that the government is exaggerating when it claims he took more than 1 million documents and that far fewer have actually been disclosed.
“I think the number of NSA documents that have been published is in the hundreds and not the thousands,” said Ben Wizner, Snowden’s lawyer.
“The mainstream view among intelligence professionals is that every day and every year that has gone by has lessened the value and importance of the Snowden archives,” Wizner said.
Greenwald said the journalists were handed about 9,000 to 10,000 secret documents under the condition that they avoid disclosing any information that could harm innocent people, and that they give the NSA a chance to argue against the release of certain materials.
“We’ve honored his request with each document we’ve released,” Greenwald said.
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