NSA Director: Snowden’s Leaks Helped Terrorists Avoid Tracking

Former NSA contractor dismisses ‘traitor’ remark

Edward Snowden addresses an ACLU-sponsored event in Hawaii / AP
February 24, 2015

Disclosures of National Security Agency secrets by the former contractor Edward Snowden have damaged U.S. efforts to battle terrorists, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers said on Monday.

"I would say that it has had a material impact on our ability to generate insights as to what terrorist groups around the world are doing," Rogers said at a conference in Washington.

The admiral declined to provide specifics. "I don’t want them to have any doubt in their minds we are aggressively out hunting and looking for them," he said during a cyber security conference hosted by the New America Foundation.

"And they should be concerned about that, and I want them to be concerned, quite frankly, because I’m concerned about the security of our nation," Rogers said.

The director of the NSA in his comments voiced concerns that the security of Americans and overseas allies has been undermined by the leaks. "So anyone who thinks this has not had an impact, I would say, doesn’t know what they’re talking about," he said.

Asked about new "blind spots" in the agency’s tracking of terrorist communications as a result of Snowden’s disclosures, Rogers responded: "Have I lost capability that we had prior to the revelations? Yes."

Rogers’ remarks echoed those of Michael Daniel, the White House’s cybersecurity coordinator and a special assistant to the president, who said in a speech last year that the Snowden leaks will be felt for decades

"Make no mistake: We are going to be dealing with the fallout from that for all of your careers, and the impact that that has had on our national security will reverberate for decades," Daniel told midshipmen at the Naval Academy on March 28.

Snowden, meanwhile, surfaced in an online interview Monday on the social networking site Reddit and brushed off criticism that he is a traitor.

Asked about comments by Neil Patrick Harris, an actor and the host of this year’s Academy Awards, Sunday night suggesting that he was a traitor, Snowden wrote: "To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad. My perspective is if you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough."

"Edward Snowden could not be here for some treason," Harris said after Citizenfour, a film about Snowden, won an Oscar.

Snowden, currently a fugitive in Russia, passed thousands of top-secret NSA documents to several anti-secrecy journalists.

The most recent disclosures revealed that the NSA intercepted key codes used in cell phone SIM cards to prevent communications from being intercepted.

Earlier disclosures included revelations that the NSA was capable of breaking into the networks of foreign intelligence agencies and intercepting their communications and reports from foreign spies.

Asked if he would have done things differently, Snowden said he would have gone public earlier.

"I would have come forward sooner," he stated. "Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers."

Snowden and his supporters have sought to justify his actions against NSA as those of a whistleblower.

Snowden’s critics, in both government and the private sector, however, have said that most of his disclosures were unrelated to alleged civil liberties abuses and have not revealed legal wrongdoing – only aggressive intelligence-gathering.

Asked about the role of the U.S. government in conducting cyber attacks against Iran’s industrial control systems several years ago using a computer worm called Stuxnet, Rogers declined to comment.

But he stated: "The United States, like many nations around the world, clearly, we have capabilities in cyber."

To avoid escalation that could inflict strategic damage and cost lives, Rogers said cyber deterrence concepts need to be developed to reduce the risks of a cyber war.

"We clearly are not, I think, where we need to be, where I think we want collectively to be," he said. "This is still the early stages of cyber [deterrence], in many ways. So we’re going to have to work our way through this."

On nation state threats, Rogers identified both China and Russia as major challenges.

Cyber war likely will involve major electronic attacks against critical infrastructure, such as the electrical grid or financial networks designed to cause a significant impact on the day-to-day functioning of society, he said.

Losses caused by foreign cyber attacks have been estimated at between $100 billion to $400 billion annually through intellectual property theft, he said.

Rogers defended the telephone metadata collection program used to located terrorists, a program he said grew out of the intelligence failures of Sept. 11, 2001.

"You have in at least one instance phone connectivity between one of the plotters who was in the United States and back overseas," he said, adding that critics argued NSA should have access to the data and should have "connected the dots" of the plot.

Rogers also was asked about the U.S. response to the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack in November that the U.S. government has attributed to North Korean government hackers.

He declined to say what role Cyber Command would take in what President Obama has said would be U.S. retaliation.

"On the positive side, several months have passed now," he said. "We haven’t seen a repeat of the behavior, which is I think in part was part of the entire intention, to say, ‘Look, this is unacceptable and that we don’t want this to happen again.’"

Rogers repeated a warning he had made earlier to Congress that "I think it’s only a matter of time before we see destructive offensive actions taken against critical U.S. infrastructure," while he is head of Cyber Command.

"I didn’t realize that it would go against a motion picture company, to be honest," he said.

Rogers said the North Korea cyber attack "bounced all over the world before it got to California" using networks located on different continents and different geographical regions.

Rogers also said the U.S. government contacted the Chinese government to seek Beijing’s cooperation in investigating the North Korean cyber attacks that security analysts say may have transited networks in China.

"We reached out to our Chinese counterparts to say, ‘Hey, look, this is of concern to us and it should be of concern to you, that in the long run, this kind of destructive behavior directed against a private entity purely on the basis of freedom of expression is not in anyone’s best interests, that this is not good.’"

The Chinese listened, but Rogers said it is not clear how Chinese will respond to U.S. requests for cooperation on foreign cyber attacks will play out in the future.

On May 1, the Justice Department made an unprecedented indictment of five Chinese military hackers involved in stealing corporate U.S. data.

China reacted angrily to the indictment and demanded that the prosecution, which was largely symbolic because the five military hackers remain in China, be halted.

Rogers declined to comment when asked about recent news reports that NSA is using spyware in computer hard drives for surveillance.

However, he said NSA’s surveillance mission is limited to a "very specific framework" bound by legal restrictions.

Rogers also sidestepped questions about NSA efforts to track down online fundraising by terrorist groups like the Islamic State. "We spend a lot of time looking for people who don’t want to be found," he said.

Rogers, who is also the current commander of the new U.S. Cyber Command, co-located with NSA at Fort Meade, Md., said he opposed splitting the leadership between NSA and Cyber Command.

"Given where U.S. Cyber Command is in its maturity and its journey right now, it needs the capabilities of the National Security Agency to execute its mission to defend critical U.S. infrastructure and to defend the department’s networks," Rogers said.