The volume and level of detail of the classified documents describing government intelligence gathering leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden indicate that he might not have acted alone, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said today.
Rogers, who described the damage to national security stemming from the leaks as "significant and in many cases irreversible," would not say whether he believes the contractor was working in concert with a foreign government, though he suggested that Snowden, on his own, would not have known to perform the queries that he did to obtain the documents, and that he could well have received help to navigate through the security checks in the NSA systems.
"I still think there's a lot of unanswered questions here. When you look at some of the things he did that may have been a little bit beyond his capabilities, you look at the kinds of information he queried and the way he queried it on his smash-and-grab, run out the door to the bastions of Internet freedom -- China and Russia -- there's some things in there that just don't add up quite yet," Rogers said in a panel discussion hosted by the Washington Post.
"If you look at it, it sure raises more questions than answers on, A: how he got around certain things, and, B: the kinds of queries he was doing would have been a little beyond, what he knew existed, and what his assignments were. So we're a little concerned that there may have been more to this story than meets the eye," he added.
"We also believe in his smash-and-grab he took things he didn't even realize what they were as he ran out the door. And unfortunately now we can imagine that hostile intelligence services are enjoying having some late-night reading," Rogers said.
--Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA and the CIA
To Russia With Love
To Russia With LoveThe Snowden case, Rogers continued, "raises concerns that there may have been help in ... his search queries and some of the security measures that he circumvented in the process of taking and running to China and then coordinated a trip to Russia. I mean, clearly he's in the loving arms of an FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service) agent today."
Rogers has good reason to wonder if there is more to the story, according to Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA and the CIA.
Hayden pointed out that Snowden did not appear to be acting on a whim, but rather seemed to have made a mission out of gathering and releasing classified documents detailing the intelligence programs through which the government secretly monitored vast stores of phone calls and electronic communications.
"It is inexplicable as to how someone of his background and grade would have access to so much information, until you then begin to add in some of the specifics," Hayden said.
"One of the specifics was this wasn't someone who was there and working and suddenly offended by something he came across, and thereby was motivated for some higher good," he said.
This was a sustained, long-term campaign that he had undertaken in order to take this information," Hayden said, "and in fact had moved from job to job in order to facilitate his taking of this information, which doesn't prove but is not inconsistent with what the chairman is saying. How does one of that background have the ability to plan such a campaign?"
Internal Policies May Have Been Lax
Hayden also suggested that the internal policies governing the flow of data within the intelligence community may have become too lax in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Until that point, information generally moved on a strictly need-to-know basis. Then, as the postmortems began to unearth intelligence failures, agencies began moving in the opposite direction and liberally -- Hayden would say excessively -- sharing data.
"There wasn't anybody of my kind of background who didn't believe firmly this was going to happen," Hayden said. "We made need-to-know an absolute criticism of the American intelligence community for more than a decade, and it was all need-to-share, or responsibility to provide. And like most big bureaucracies, when you swing that pendulum you over-correct and we ended up over here."
Now, Hayden worries that the pendulum could swing back the other way and sensitive information could again become so restricted that intelligence officers won't have a full picture of emerging threats.
Rogers takes issue with the way the hitherto secret government intelligence programs divulged by Snowden have generally been portrayed in the media. He rejects the term "surveillance," for instance, and argues that they are subject to rigorous, if secret, oversight.
At the same time, he acknowledges that the U.S. intelligence community faces a problem of perception. Even though he counts as an ardent defender of the substance and merits of the NSA's programs, Rogers admits that they could withstand a greater level of transparency.
In that spirit, he said that he is working with the ranking Democrat on his committee and the bipartisan leaders of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on legislation that would provide for new disclosures about the NSA's activities. Rogers said he hopes to unveil those proposals later this month.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.