At a time of extreme partisanship in our country and in the midst of what may be the most contentious presidential election in U.S. history, a congressional committee did something extraordinary: It issued a bipartisan and unanimous report on an extremely divisive issue. This issue is whether former National Security Agency technician Edward Snowden, who stole 1.5 million classified documents and leaked thousands to the news media, is a true whistleblower or a traitor.
The report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (where I worked for five years) found what many of us have long argued: Snowden is not a whistleblower; he is a disgruntled former intelligence employee who did enormous damage to U.S. national security. Click here to read the unclassified summary of this report.
The five findings in the committee report’s unclassified summary are stunning.
Snowden Caused Tremendous Damage to National Security.
The most well-known Snowden disclosure concerned the NSA metadata program, which collects phone records but not the contents of phone calls. Although this program has long been overseen by the congressional intelligence committees and helped halt several terrorist attacks against the United States, Snowden’s leaks about it led to a hysterical and uninformed reaction by the press and some members of Congress that led Congress and President Obama to implement major restrictions, which have made this program much more difficult for intelligence officers to use to identify and track terrorist suspects.
Snowden’s defenders claim that since the metadata program violated the Constitution and the privacy rights of Americans, Snowden was justified in leaking information to the press about it and therefore should receive a presidential pardon. Putting aside that Snowden didn’t bother trying to raise his supposed concern about this program through legal channels, the facts are that the vast majority of court decisions on this program upheld it as legal, Congress and the Justice Department have monitored it, and only very minor abuses were discovered. To read more on this issue, see my May 2015 NRO article “NSA Data Collection: Necessary or Unconstitutional.”
While the unclassified report summary does not give specifics of how Snowden’s leaks benefited U.S. enemies and terrorists (that is probably detailed in the classified version available to all House members), U.S. intelligence officials have publicly stated that Snowden’s leaks have allowed ISIS and al-Qaeda to evade detection by Western intelligence services. Former CIA director James Woolsey has called for Snowden to receive the death penalty because his leaks of NSA monitoring techniques helped the ISIS-inspired terrorists who committed the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks conceal their electronic communications.
The unclassified report also does not mention concerns that Snowden’s leaks have made it more difficult to stop terrorist attacks in the United States. A Chicago Tribune editorial and a Wall Street Journal op-ed by L. Gordon Cravitz, both published in December 2015, noted how limits on the use of the NSA metadata program — especially how long the government can retain phone records — kept intelligence agencies and law enforcement from acquiring intelligence that may have prevented the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack in which two ISIS-inspired terrorists murdered 14.
Snowden Was Not a Whistleblower.
The committee found that Snowden does not qualify as a whistleblower just because he disclosed classified information. It explains that Snowden made no effort to pursue numerous legal avenues available to him to raise any concerns he had about U.S. intelligence activities. The report says that if Snowden feared retaliation for voicing concerns about NSA activities, he could have brought them to the House Intelligence Committee, which routinely receives disclosures from intelligence contractors like Snowden. While I agree with this finding, I discussed in a 2013 NRO article “Preventing Future Snowdens” that the intelligence oversight committees should be officially designated as “safe harbors” to encourage would-be intelligence whistleblowers to legally bring their concerns to Congress instead of making illegal and damaging disclosures to the news media.
The committee also noted that Snowden used the security credentials of co-workers to steal information from their computers and remove personal information of thousands of intelligence employees and contractors. I have yet to hear from Snowden and his defenders how a legitimate whistleblower could engage in such behavior.
Snowden has never given a good answer for why he revealed such an enormous number of U.S. classified documents rather than just disclosing a handful to make his point about supposedly runaway government domestic-surveillance programs. I believe this indicates that Snowden’s disclosures were all about damaging U.S. national security and his self-promotion and had nothing to do with whistleblowing. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus had a similar take when he wrote that “a real whistleblower would have selected the documents to be published, made certain that they didn’t harm national security, and remained in the country to face the consequences of his actions.”
The unclassified report summary notes that instead of remaining in the country to face the legal consequences of his actions in the tradition of the civil disobedience he professes to embrace, Snowden fled to Hong Kong, then Russia. The committee report also points out that despite Snowden’s insistence that he did not share U.S. secrets with the Russian government, a top Russian official said otherwise in June 2016.
The unclassified summary is silent on whether Snowden had been recruited by a foreign intelligence service. I believe he was. This also is the view of former CIA operations officer Robert Baer, who told the London Daily Mail that the CIA believes Snowden was recruited by Russian intelligence when he served in Geneva in 2007. Baer believes Snowden first fled to Hong Kong to “muddy the waters” on the involvement of Russian intelligence in his actions.
Snowden Was a Poor Performer and Disgruntled Employee.
The report says Snowden was repeatedly counseled by managers regarding his behavior at work and had been reprimanded for failing to follow the proper protocol for raising grievances through the chain of command. There was a similar report in a October 10, 2013, New York Times article by Eric Schmitt that said Snowden was sent home from a CIA assignment in Geneva after he was caught trying to break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access. Snowden’s CIA supervisor in Geneva reportedly wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file that noted a distinct change in Snowden’s behavior and work habits. According to the Times article, this derogatory report slipped through the cracks and was not reported to the NSA when it hired him as a contractor.
Snowden Was and Remains a Serial Exaggerator and Fabricator.
The report summary discusses “a pattern of intentional lying” by Snowden on how he washed out of the Army, his false claim about obtaining a high-school degree, claiming he was a CIA senior advisor when he was only an entry-level computer technician, and lying about health problems to his supervisors. The report summary also notes that while Snowden claims congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March 2013 was the reason he began massive disclosures of U.S. secrets to the press, Snowden began stealing this information eight months earlier. The unclassified report does not mention a related fact: that Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who facilitated Snowden’s leaks, says in his 2014 book No Place to Hide that Snowden first tried to contact him on December 1, 2012.
The NSA and Other U.S. Intelligence Agencies Have Not Done Enough to Prevent Another Massive Unauthorized Disclosure.
The unclassified summary also says that a recent DOD inspector general report directed by the committee found that the NSA has yet to effectively implement post-Snowden security improvements. This is the most disturbing finding of the report. Heads should roll over this and it should drive whoever wins the 2016 presidential election to implement massive intelligence reforms and a housecleaning of intelligence agencies. These efforts must include an overhaul of how the government grants and manages security clearances, tougher security rules for information-technology staffs, and strict protocols to ensure that when intelligence-agency employees apply for jobs at other intelligence agencies or contractors, full employment files must be sent as part of the application process.
Congressman Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this about the enormous damage to U.S. national security caused by Snowden and the work that still needs to be done to recover from this damage:
Snowden has long portrayed himself as a truth-seeking whistleblower whose actions were designed solely to defend privacy, and whose disclosures did no harm to the country’s security. The Committee’s Review — a product of two years of extensive research — shows his claims to be self-serving and false, and the damage done to our national security to be profound. The review also shows that the Intelligence Community still has much to do to institutionalize post-Snowden reforms to protect the nation’s sources and methods.
Although I have strong differences with President Obama, it is to his credit that he continues to refuse to refer to Snowden as a whistleblower and has called on Snowden to return to the United States for trial. I believe the House Intelligence Committee’s report vindicates the president’s position and deals a death blow to any chance of a presidential pardon for Snowden. (The committee also sent this unanimous, bipartisan letter to the president urging him not to pardon Snowden.) The House Intelligence Committee has done our country a great service by producing this bipartisan and unanimous report that will help Americans learn the truth about the enormous and costly damage done to our national security by Edward Snowden and counter determined efforts by the Left — including by Oliver Stone — to falsely portray him as a hero and patriot.
— Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz.