|Wall Street Journal||-|
Spy agencies now rank cybersecurity and leaks ahead of terrorism in an annual assessment of top U.S. threats, reflecting changes in the security landscape following the disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Snowden Leaks Assailed in Senate Hearing on National Security
Updated Jan. 29, 2014 7:50 p.m. ET
Spy agencies now rank cybersecurity and leaks ahead of terrorism in an annual assessment of top U.S. threats, reflecting changes in the security landscape following the disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Siobhan Gorman reports on the News Hub. Photo: AP.
WASHINGTON—The top U.S. intelligence official lashed out Wednesday at former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, telling U.S. senators that Mr. Snowden's leaks of surveillance documents have made the nation "less safe" and calling for the return of the stolen information.
But the attack was countered by Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), who said that "years of misleading and deceptive statements" about U.S. surveillance programs by senior officials had undermined the trust of the American public.
U.S. spy services have an engrained "culture of misinformation," Mr. Wyden added in an unusually sharp denunciation of surveillance practices that have stoked controversy in recent months.
The often testy exchanges between senators and officials, which came during a hearing to gauge threats to national security, point to the difficult path ahead as Congress prepares to tackle the unfinished business of surveillance reforms.
President Barack Obama unveiled several measures to curb surveillance activities in a speech earlier this month, but left many of the details to be determined by intelligence officials and Congress, such as how to restructure an NSA phone-data program that collects call records on millions of Americans.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper devoted just a quarter of his opening testimony to global threats like Syria and cyberattacks. He spent much of the rest detailing the harms done by Mr. Snowden's disclosures, from risking the lives of people working with U.S. spy services to undermining multi-billion-dollar spy efforts. Terrorists, he said, are "going to school" on the information Mr. Snowden has revealed. The leaks, he said, are the "most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history."
A threat-assessment report compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies and released for the hearing also reflected the controversy around Mr. Snowden. The report said dangers from foreign spies and from leakers have surpassed terrorism as threats to the U.S.
Cybersecurity threats topped the list for the second straight year. But this year's discussion of such threats was more ominous, reflecting what officials see as a growing likelihood of a destructive attack.
"The unauthorized disclosure of this information to state adversaries, nonstate activists, or other entities will continue to pose a critical threat," the assessment report stated.
Fueling cybersecurity concerns are efforts by countries like Russia and China to divide the Internet along national borders. The U.S. sees this as a threat to the free flow of information. Current and former officials have warned that the Snowden leaks have given momentum to this trend, as countries try to counter what they see as a threat from the NSA.
The hearing served as a kind of return showdown between Messrs. Clapper and Wyden. At last year's threat hearing, Mr. Wyden asked whether the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." Mr. Clapper replied, "No, sir."
That answer was disproven a few months later when Mr. Snowden revealed the NSA phone program that collects millions of U.S. call records. Mr. Clapper later explained that he responded in the "least untruthful manner" possible, given restrictions on classified information.
Aides clarified to say that he was thinking about other surveillance programs, not the phone data program, when he answered.
Sen. Wyden refrained Wednesday from directly citing Mr. Clapper's 2013 comments. Instead, he cited statements by NSA's director that "the NSA doesn't hold data on U.S. citizens," adding, "this is obviously untrue." NSA had no comment in response.
Mr. Wyden also criticized NSA's handling of email, saying that while officials have suggested the agency lacks authority to read emails without a warrant, secret court opinions "showed that wasn't true, either."
Sen. Wyden pressed Mr. Clapper and other top officials to set deadlines for delivering answers to questions such as whether any American communications had been searched without a warrant. This time, Mr. Clapper didn't provide an answer, but said he'd prefer to discuss the topic at another time.
Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan also came under criticism from lawmakers for his agency's rebuttal of a highly critical, still classified report from the Senate intelligence committee on the agency's interrogation program.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.) said the CIA under Mr. Brennan made "inaccurate public statements about the committee's study [that] are meant to intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight."
Mr. Brennan shot back: "I respectfully but vehemently disagree with your characterization of the CIA's cooperation with this committee." He said he would discuss the report with the committee, though not at the hearing about global threats.
Intelligence officials also weighed in on the dangers posed by the civil war in Syria, saying it has become a training ground for roughly 26,000 extremists, about 7,000 of them foreigners from the Middle East and Europe. That is fueling concerns those militants could launch attacks in the West.
Worries about terrorist attacks during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were also on the agenda. Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said there has been "uptick in the threat reporting regarding Sochi."
The increase was expected," he said, adding that he is not as concerned about attacks at the Olympics as much as ones just outside the Games or elsewhere in the region.
Write to Siobhan Gorman at email@example.com
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