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Transcript of Remarks from NSA Inspector General on Edward Snowden

The inspector general for the NSA spoke on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for the first time yesterday. His remarks came during a panel discussion on a “new paradigm of leaking” at Georgetown Law Center that took place in the afternoon and was part of a day-long conference. 

A full report on what NSA Inspector General George Ellard said was posted last night with reactions to his comments from journalist Glenn Greenwald and one of Snowden’s lawyers, Jesselyn Radack (who was a speaker at the conference). Now, here’s a transcript of his prepared initial remarks that were previously reported at Firedoglake.



…[inaudible] asserted Mr. Snowden has done long term irreversible negative impact to our national security. They asserted that he has damaged the intelligence community’s ability to keep our country safe, that he has put the lives of Americans at risk and that he’s helped terrorists whose aim is to kill us.

I do not think that these assertions are hyperbolic and I’d like to start out by first giving you some idea of what Mr. Snowden has done and then compare to him another person—nobody has called Snowden a spy—but another person who indeed was a spy and I happen to know something.

Seven years ago, I read an article in Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time magazine or Newsweek. The article reported that the NSA was able to so to speak tap into the communications of senior Al Qaeda leadership including Osama bin Laden. The article went on to explain that these terrorists believe that if an email were not sent the NSA would not be able to catch it. So Osama bin Laden, according to Spiegel, would type up his instructions to his agents and save the message in a draft folder. Agents knew his password and they would go into his account, look in the draft folder, respond as well, save the draft. Nary an email was sent. As a consequence, according to Spiegel, we were able to thwart dangerous terrorist plots.

I’m not going to comment on the accuracy of the Der Spiegel report, but I can tell you one thing. If the NSA were able to tap into the communications of senior Taliban or bin Laden associates the day before the Spiegel report was issued, we could not do it the day after. Our adversaries are very sophisticated particularly in the IT realm. They do not live in caves in Afghanistan. And they read Speigel and the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Guardian.

I think, at least to the degree I can explain today in this open forum, Mr. Snowden has done two kinds of harm. First of all he has revealed particular weapons that our intelligence community had been using to protect our security. Once they’re made public, we lose them.

Secondly, he’s revealed a great deal of stuff, a great deal of information about NSA’s current strategic posture and how it intended to proceed in the future. All of that is lost.

In deciding whether Snowden and Private Manning are exhibits of a new paradigm of leaking, I would like to very briefly contrast and compare – At least, Mr. Snowden. I don’t know a lot about Private Manning—Another person who leaked an incredible amount of classified information, then-Supervisory Special Agent Robert Hanssen of the FBI.

A presidential commission 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.”

Hanssen had a career of over 23 years during which he gave, first of all, the Soviet and then later Russian governments reams of information and dozen of computer diskettes containing, according to the presidential commission, “national security information of incalculable value.”

I’ll give you an example: Hanssen compromised a plan that developed to protect its military and political command in an event of a first strike by the Soviet Union. And he did that at a time when key elements within the Soviet oligarchy were advocating a first strike against the United States fearing that America would take advantage of then-crumbling communist Soviet Empire to launch its own preemptive strike.

So, Hanssen stands, I thought, until last year, alone, in the damage he has done to our country and to our national security. And 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 and I think perhaps Snowden and Private Manning really do exhibit or are exemplars of a new paradigm.

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.

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 controls distribution.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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