The U.S. National Security Agency is imposing new restrictions on systems administrators and other personnel following “irreversible damage” caused by fugitive former contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA director said.
Without providing details, Army General Keith Alexander said he has seen signs that Snowden’s exposure of classified surveillance programs hurt U.S. intelligence efforts and made it harder for the government to thwart terrorist plots.
Morale at the NSA, a Defense Department agency responsible for communications intelligence, has also been undermined by Snowden’s disclosures and the public controversy that followed, Alexander said. He praised the agency’s workforce and cited 20 NSA code-breakers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“These are the heroes, not this leaker,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.
Alexander’s comments yesterday marked his latest effort to defend U.S. surveillance activities after Snowden’s leaks exposed top-secret NSA collection of telephone and Internet data. The revelations last month sparked an international controversy and stirred calls among members of Congress and privacy-rights advocates for the programs to be curtailed.
During an earlier panel discussion at the forum, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, credited Snowden for igniting a much-needed public discussion about the reach of U.S. surveillance.
“He did this country a service by starting a debate that was anemic, that was left to government officials when people did not understand fully what was happening,” Romero said. “Regardless of where you come out on it, we have now a vigorous public debate.”
Alexander said it was unfortunate that much of the initial information that emerged on the once-secret programs was wrong or incomplete. He reiterated that the activities were authorized by U.S. law and subject to judicial and congressional oversight, points that he said weren’t made clear to the public.
The NSA director said the programs exposed by Snowden played a role in breaking up terrorist plots and identifying people connected to terrorist groups without any major compromise in Americans’ privacy rights. Last month, Alexander told U.S. lawmakers that the surveillance activities disrupted more than 50 terrorist conspiracies worldwide.
Earlier at the conference, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, said the Snowden leaks have benefited terrorist organizers.
“We have seen, in response to the Snowden leaks, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups seeking to change their tactics, looking to see what they can learn from what is in the press and seek to change how they communicate to avoid detection,” Olsen said.
Alexander said the NSA has determined which files Snowden took and said they amounted to a lot of information, though he wouldn’t say how much. “We’re taking action to fix this” so it can’t happen again, said Alexander, who was interviewed on stage at the forum by Pete Williams of NBC News.
The new security measures include restricting the use of removable media, such as thumb drives, by systems administrators to move data among network servers, Alexander said. U.S. officials have said that Snowden used a thumb drive to copy the documents he took.
Alexander outlined other steps, including requiring two people to execute some activities, such as gaining access to server rooms, and speeding programs to encrypt files to make them readable only to authorized users.
Alexander said the NSA and Congress are also weighing proposals to shift responsibility for maintaining so-called metadata on phone calls to telecommunications companies from the NSA under a court-mandated process that would ensure ther government has access when necessary. That might be done in response to public concerns about the government keeping the data itself, he said.
The NSA set up that database to save information such as telephone numbers and duration of conversations -- not content of calls -- after the companies in 2009 rejected a government request that they do it, according to former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.
Alexander said President Barack Obama’s administration is also considering a request from a coalition of companies, privacy advocates and trade groups to let Internet and phone carriers publish the number and types of U.S. data requests they receive. He said the response depends on whether that can be done without risking damage to investigations.
The 63 organizations that made the request in a letter yesterday included Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc.; the Center for Democracy and Technology, a non-profit privacy advocate; and trade groups the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Internet Association.
Amid the U.S. debate over surveillance, Snowden remains holed up in a Moscow airport as he pursues requests for asylum. The 30-year-old former employee of McLean, Virginia-based government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. faces federal charges including espionage.
The U.S. is pressing Russia to expel Snowden and has revoked his passport. He applied for temporary asylum this week at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and has been confined to the transit area there since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23.
While Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have indicated they’d be willing to take him in, Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the U.S. of stranding Snowden in Moscow by pressuring other countries to prevent his travel through their airspace and to deny him refuge. The standoff has cast a shadow on preparations for a summit in early September between Putin and Obama.
Romero said the ACLU hasn’t decided whether it would be willing to aid in Snowden’s legal defense if he were to return for to the U.S. for trial. He criticized White House spokesman Jay Carney for saying that Snowden isn’t a human-rights activist or whistle-blower.
“Well, who made him king of the human-rights community?” Romero said of Carney.
Another panelist, Jeh Charles Johnson, a former Defense Department general counsel, said, “It is a bad message to send to people who decide to take the law into their own hands that they are doing a public service.”
Former U.S. Representative Jane Harman said Snowden shouldn’t be viewed in the same category as national-security whistle-blowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, who made public the Pentagon papers about the Vietnam War.
“This is completely different from Ellsberg,” said Harman, a California Democrat who headed the House intelligence committee. “This is a kid who had nothing to do with formulating the policy; for my lights is totally self-centered and narcissistic.”