A broad assessment of the damage caused by disclosure of documents on classified intelligence programs has concluded that the former National Security Agency contractor who claimed responsibility for the leaks probably obtained dozens of other sensitive files, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The disclosure came as NSA and FBI officials came under new pressure from senior lawmakers to defend the agency’s interpretation of a law that it has used to sweep up the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens, and to declassify material to support NSA Director Keith B. Alexander’s assertion that the surveillance programs have helped to thwart “dozens” of terrorist attacks.
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Read all of the stories in The Washington Post’s ongoing coverage of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
The early findings by investigators evaluating the scope of the breach appear to bolster former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s claims that he made off with additional classified files that have yet to be exposed. Snowden, who has sought refuge in Hong Kong, said he has documents showing extensive U.S. cyber-
U.S. counterintelligence teams “believe that he has more,” said a U.S. official briefed on the status of the investigation. He said the NSA is “going through a major auditing” of materials to which Snowden had access, seeking answers about how he was able to obtain a classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order and other records that should have been beyond his reach as a systems administrator.
U.S. officials are “worried that the disclosures will lead to a degradation over time of the effectiveness of the programs,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the assessment is ongoing.
The leaks about NSA surveillance activities have triggered a polarizing debate over the legal basis and effectiveness of programs that have swept up data on millions of U.S. citizens and been hailed as critical in preventing multiple terrorist attacks.
Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon, Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who have been critical of the NSA’s activities, challenged Alexander’s claims that “dozens” of attacks have been avoided as a result of the programs.
“We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence,” the lawmakers said in a statement Thursday. Contrary to Alexander’s assertion, they said classified information they have reviewed suggests that “all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods. The public deserves a clear explanation.”
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order leaked by Snowden and subsequent disclosures indicate that the NSA has been collecting “metadata,” which includes the numbers, locations and durations, on billions of phone calls in the United States over the past seven years. Alexander and others have emphasized that the data contain no names and that the NSA can’t listen to the contents of those communications without additional permission from the court.