The Pentagon is concerned that a former National Security Agency contractor who is now in Hong Kong will compromise top-secret electronic intelligence programs targeted against China, according to a defense official.
Edward Snowden, the former NSA technician who surfaced in Hong Kong Sunday, worked on highly classified electronic intelligence programs targeting China at the NSA’s Kunia facility in Hawaii.
Snowden’s exact whereabouts are not known. He told the South China Morning Post in an interview published Wednesday that he plans to remain in the former British colony, something that likely would upset U.S.-China relations. "My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate," he was quoted as saying.
Hong Kong is led by a chief executive who follows Beijing’s dictates on all security and foreign policy matters.
Snowden also provided documents to the newspaper showing that NSA has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and in mainland China since 2009. None revealed data on Chinese military systems, he said.
According to the report, Snowden claimed there were "hundreds" of NSA intelligence targets in Hong Kong and the mainland.
"We hack network backbones—like huge internet routers, basically—that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," he said.
On Capitol Hill, Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, defended NSA surveillance and said Snowden’s dislosures had already damaged national security.
"Great harm has already been done by opening this up, and the consequence, I believe, is our security is jeopardized," Alexander said.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we will lose capabilities as a result of this and that not only the United States but those allies that we have helped will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago. So I am really concerned about that."
The defense official said it is possible Snowden may already have contact with MSS officials in Hong Kong. The MSS, China’s top intelligence agency, is believed to have hundreds or even thousands of operatives working in Hong Kong, a former British colony that is slowly coming under Beijing’s political control.
Pentagon intelligence officials are concerned Snowden will barter with Chinese authorities using his access to top-secret intelligence data to avoid being sent back to the United States, said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
"The worst case scenario is that in order to avoid extradition efforts by the U.S., Snowden will offer secrets to the Chinese," said the official. "It is a potential catastrophe."
The official said in this worst-case scenario the Chinese would "squeeze" Snowden and extract as much classified information about NSA spying programs against China as possible over the next year and then later likely return him to the United States.
A Chinese official, meanwhile, was quoted by a Hong Kong newspaper on Wednesday as saying the U.S. government has not requested Chinese assistance in locating and repatriating Snowden.
Song Zhe, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Commissioner in Hong Kong, was asked by a reporter for the Tung Fang newspaper whether Hong Kong’s government would assist in the case. "I don't know and everyone is concerned about the case," he stated.
A Justice Department official declined to comment on the ongoing criminal case.
Initial concerns about Snowden’s disclosure of classified NSA surveillance programs, including the PRISM data-mining program involving U.S. Internet giants, are focused on the impact on U.S. government counterterrorism operations. U.S. officials told the Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday that there are initial signs that terrorists, including those linked to al Qaeda, are tightening online security by changing passwords and using more secure communications software.
However, Pentagon and NSA officials are more worried the former NSA technician will give up secrets about U.S. spying against China, considered one of the intelligence community’s "hard targets."
The Snowden defection is the second major intelligence compromise. Wikileaks disclosed more nearly 400, 000 classified documents beginning in October 2010.
Guardian correspondent Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story of NSA surveillance, said Snowden provided him with "thousands" of classified documents and that "dozens" were considered newsworthy. Several documents, including a court order and a presidential directive, were posted online.
U.S. intelligence against China traditionally has been heavily focused on technical spying rather than on the use of human agents for spy operations.
NSA’s Kunia electronic intelligence operations are mainly targeted on Asia and include several highly classified collection programs aimed at China. The programs remain top secret and are known to be top targets of Chinese spies, both civilian MSS agents and military spies from the Second Department of the People’s Liberation Army general staff known as 2PLA.
However, China in recent years has increased vastly its use of electronic media and communications, which are known to be valuable sources of intelligence. An estimated 309 million people regularly use the Internet and there are more than 1.2 billion cell phone users.
Gen. Alexander told a Senate hearing Wednesday that he is concerned about how he was able to gain access to sensitive secrets despite close screening of employees.
"I do have concerns about that—over the process," Alexander said. "I have grave concerns over that, the access that he had, the process that we did. And those are things that I have to look into and fix from my end. … I think those absolutely need to be looked at."
Snowden, who dropped out of high school and trained as a computer specialist, worked as a "system administrator" for intelligence networks.
"He had great skills in that area," Alexander said. "But the rest of it, you've hit on the head. We do have to go back and look at these processes, the oversight in those. We have those. Where they went wrong and how we fix those."
Alexander defended the NSA’s program of monitoring phone records, telling senators that the program had helped uncover "dozens" of terrorist plots both domestically and abroad.
Alexander also disputed Snowden’s assertion in a video posted online Sunday that the technician was able to tap into any person’s communications, including those of the president.
"I know of no way to do that," he said.