DAVID IGNATIUS: Snowden’s damage might be less than expected

DAVID IGNATIUS

DAVID IGNATIUS

As the intelligence community continues its assessment of the damage caused by Edward Snowden’ss leaks of secret programs, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says it appears the impact may be less than once feared because “it doesn’t look like he [Snowden] took as much as first thought.”

“We are still investigating, but we think that a lot of what he looked at, he couldn’t pull down,” Clapper said in a rare interview at his headquarters Tuesday. “Some things we thought he got, he apparently didn’t. Although somewhat less than expected, the damage is still profound,” he said.

This assessment contrasts with the initial view in which officials, unsure of what Snowden had taken, assumed the worst – including the possibility that he had compromised the communications networks that make up the military’ss command and control system. Officials now think that dire forecast may have been too extreme.

It’s impossible to assess independently the accuracy of what Clapper said, either about the damage Snowden allegedly caused or its mitigation. That’s one reason why a legal resolution of the case would be so valuable: It would establish the facts.

In the damage evaluation, the intelligence community has established three tiers of material: The first tier is the 300 or so documents that a senior intelligence official said news organizations in the U.S. or overseas have already published, often with redactions. The second is an additional 200,000 documents the U.S. believes have been given to the media by Snowden or his associates.

It’s in a third tier of documents, which Snowden is assumed to have taken but whose current status isn’t known, where officials have lowered the threat assessment. This batch of probably downloaded material is about 1.5 million documents, the senior official said.

Now, by piecing together a replication of top-secret files at the time, they have a better idea of what Snowden may have taken.

In Snowden’s recent interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, the former NSA contractor seemed eager to explore a deal that would allow him to return to the United States and face legal proceedings with some sort of negotiated plea agreement.

A senior intelligence official cautioned that any discussion of plea negotiations would be overseen by the Justice Department.

Pressed to explain what damage Snowden’s revelations had done, the official was guarded, saying that there was “damage in foreign relations and that the leaks had [poisoned NSA’s] relations with commercial providers.”

The senior official wouldn’t respond to repeated questions about whether the intelligence community has noted any changes in behavior by either the Russian or Chinese governments.

The official said the director of national intelligence is developing new procedures to make a future breach of secrecy less likely, including “continuous evaluation” of those with high security clearances that would monitor their use of social media and other online activity.

Clapper’s interview illustrates one unlikely benefit of the Snowden affair, which is that officials have decided to be more transparent in discussing intelligence issues. That, at least, is a step forward.

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