During a day-long conference at the Georgetown University Law Center, Dr. George Ellard, the inspector general for the National Security Agency, spoke for the first time about the disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In addressing the alleged damage caused by Snowden’s disclosures, he compared Snowden to Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent and convicted spy who sold secrets to the Russians.

Ellard has been the NSA’s inspector general since 2007. In this capacity, he has not spoken in a public forum before so that made what he said additionally significant. Had Snowden made the decision to report his concerns through approved NSA channels, it would have been through Ellard’s office.

Ellard was part of a panel discussion on whether there was a “new paradigm of leaking.” The panel included Alex Abdo, staff attorney of the ACLU National Security Project, Georgetown Law professor David Cole and Kenneth Wainstein, former Homeland Security Advisor and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security.

When Ellard began his prepared statements, he acknowledged that he had approached this event with some level of trepidation.

He quoted Director of National Intelligence James Clapper whom said that Snowden has caused “long term irreversible negative impact to our national security,” has “damaged the intelligence community’s ability to keep our country safe,” has “put the lives of Americans at risk” and “helped terrorists whose aim is to kill us.”

“I do not think that these assertions are hyperbolic,” Ellard added.

Ellard was the chief of staff on a presidential commission, which examined United States counterintelligence programs in the wake of espionage leaks committed by Robert Hanssen, an FBI Supervisory Special Agent. The commission, he recalled, “declared that Hanssen had perpetrated ‘the worst intelligence disaster in US history.’ In a sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors described Hanssen’s crimes as ‘surpassing evil and almost beyond comprehension.'” He provided the Soviet and Russian governments “reams of information” and “dozens of computer diskettes” of “national security information of incalculable value,” including a plan to protect the US’s military and political command in the event of a first strike by the Soviet Union.

“Hanssen stands, I thought until last year, alone in the damage he has done to our country and to our national security,” Ellard explained. “Hanssen and Snowden were alike in that they both used very well-honed IT abilities to steal and disclose classified information vital to our national security. But I think the comparison ends there.” Yet, he proceeded to compare the two and suggest that Snowden (and Chelsea Manning) were “exemplars” of a “new paradigm of leaking.”

Ellard stated “Hanssen’s motives were venal, for cash perhaps or perhaps they were psychological, a desire to play a very, very dangerous game that is therefore very, very exciting. At the end of his career, Hanssen had almost 30 years in intelligence and counterintelligence. He knew exactly what was of value to his spy handlers and he was very specific in choosing documents to steal. He knew how to control his handlers better than they knew how to control him.”

“Snowden, in contrast, was manic in his thievery, which was exponentially larger than Hanssen’s. Hanssen’s theft was in a sense finite whereas Snowden is open-ended, as his agents decide daily which documents to disclose. Snowden had no background in intelligence and is likely unaware of the significance of the documents he stole,” Ellard suggested.

Glenn Greenwald, a journalist to whom Snowden provided documents, is apparently an “agent” to which Ellard referred.

“This seems to be yet another Obama official who has no understanding of the news-gathering process except to invent concepts designed to demonize it,” responds Greenwald. “Journalists are not ‘agents’ of their sources, unless Ellard thinks that the New York Times and Washington Post are Snowden’s ‘agents,’ in which case he should have the courage to say this.”

Ellard continued: “In contrast to Hanssen, Snowden’s apparent confidence that he control others that were interested in those documents for whatever reasons is to me astonishingly naive, ignorant and egotistical. In sum, it [inaudible] new paradigm in Snowden’s treachery and for that matter Private Manning’s. It is of young, inexperienced unknowledgeable people claiming to act out of noble intentions, making sweeping collection of material vital to the national security and transferring possession of that material to other parties who control distribution.”

Those “parties” and those people, whom Ellard thinks Snowden was confident he could “control,” are journalists like Greenwald as well as the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, who also spoke on one of the panels during the conference.

Ellard later distinguished Snowden from Hanssen. “Snowden did not leak simply to one of our adversaries. The problem is that he leaked to all of them.”

“Snowden was absolutely ignorant about the material he was interpreting. He did not know what he was reading.” Ellard took particular issue with his claim “that all NSA analysts can tap the telephone calls of all Americans including President Obama’s.” It is “simply not true,” he said. (Note: what Snowden actually said was “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email.”)

Ellard was asked what he would have done if Snowden had come to him with complaints. Had this happened, Ellard says would have said something like, “Hey, listen, fifteen federal judges have certified this program is okay.” (He was referring to the NSA phone records collection program.)

“I would also have an independent obligation to assess the constitutionality of that law,” Ellard stated. “Perhaps it’s the case that we could have shown, we could have explained to Mr. Snowden his misperceptions, his lack of understanding of what we do. If not, I would have made the Senate and House Intelligence Committees open to him. Given the reaction of by some members of that committee, he would have found a welcome audience. Whether he would be in the end satisfied, I don’t know, but allowing people who have taken an oath to protect the constitution, to protect these national security interests, simply to violate or break that oath is unacceptable.”

But Cole noted the intelligence committees were already aware of the phone records collection program. Under whistleblower protection law, Snowden could only go talk to intelligence committee members. What good would that have done? He would not have been able to inform the people who needed to know: the American public.

Kathleen McClellan of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which represents whistleblowers, asked Ellard about the Office of the Inspector General hotline, which potential whistleblowers would presumably be encouraged to call. When a complaint is received, the NSA offers the following disclaimer: “We cannot provide information regarding action(s) that have been taken on any allegation reported to our office.”

McClellan said, “In truth, your office could have really sat on Mr. Snowden’s disclosures and not provided him with any followup. To me, it sounds like what was pretty unwavering support for the metadata program that your office would not have investigated the legality of that.”

“We would have investigated the legailty of the program. We would have investigated his allegations. We do that all the time,” Ellard replied. He then added that the disclaimer was for “employment actions,” like “reprisal complaints” where someone asserts that you uttered “some protected words, like “there’s fraud over there.” If your supervisor took action, the NSA would not be able to disclose that it was taking action against that supervisor to hold him or her accountable.

Jesselyn Radack of GAP, who represents Snowden and has spoken on his behalf, reacted, “I can’t imagine how any well-meaning whistleblower would possibly go to him and to his office to lodge a hotline complaint. He seemed completely hostile to whistleblowers and this is a man who runs an office that is supposed to protect whistleblowers yet he described them as manic thieves and other such terminology and was quite hostile and intimidating.” He also “seemed to somehow think his job was more to preside over employment disputes like someone stole my lunch from the refrigerator every day this week.”

Actually, the website describing the hotline calls into question Ellard’s explanation because it is for reports of gross mismanagement, waste of resources, abuse of authority, allegations of criminal activity and serious work-related misconduct, contract and procurement fraud, environmental, health and safety violations, computer crimes, bribery, kickbacks and gratuities, conflicts of interest and ethics violations, etc. These are serious matters, and any whistleblower complaining would want to know risks taken to expose alleged corrupt activity had led to accountability.

“I don’t think there have been any real questions raised about the efficacy of the oversight. Nobody is asserting, for instance, that the NSA intentionally violated the law. Some people are saying that the law violates the constitution. But we abided precisely by the contours of the law,” Ellard claimed, when asked to address how effective oversight had been. “The crisis is, however, that I suspect a broad swath of people in this room don’t believe that.”

He agreed that there “should be public discussion” about “such things like the 215 program, that’s the bulk metadata program, but Snowden was the wrong way to do it.”

Georgetown Law University did not put a media advisory out on the event because Ellard did not want remarks being reported. The university was willing to give this NSA official a sanctuary to speak his mind and not be held responsible for his views, which were of great public importance and should be reported widely.

This is who Snowden was supposedly supposed to trust to be his advocate if he had gone through proper channels.

As Radack said, “I find it startling that someone who has been IG for 7 years—and this is his first public appearance—thinks that he can come and make these quite hateful pronouncements about people who are still innocent and haven’t even been indicted yet and can talk about all the harm they’ve done to the country. It sends a very strong message to any whistleblower who may have been out in the audience who was thinking of going through channels that not only is that not going to solve your problem but you will be the one who gets prosecuted.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."