National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid off U.S. government surveillance methods five years ago, but intelligence chiefs complain that revelations from the trove of classified documents he disclosed are still trickling out.
That includes recent reporting on a mass surveillance program run by close U.S. ally Japan and on how the NSA targeted bitcoin users to gather intelligence to support counterterrorism and to combat narcotics and money laundering. The Intercept, an investigative publication with access to Snowden documents, published stories on both subjects.
The top U.S. counterintelligence official said journalists have released only about 1 percent taken by the 34-year-old American, now living in exile in Russia, “so we don’t see this issue ending anytime soon.”
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“This past year, we had more international, Snowden-related documents and breaches than ever,” Bill Evanina, who directs the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at a recent conference. “Since 2013, when Snowden left, there have been thousands of articles around the world with really sensitive stuff that’s been leaked.”
On June 5, 2013, The Guardian in Britain published the first story based on Snowden’s disclosures. It revealed that a secret court order was allowing the U.S. government to get Verizon to share the phone records of millions of Americans. Later stories, including those in The Washington Post, disclosed other snooping and how U.S. and British spy agencies had accessed information from cables carrying the world’s telephone and internet traffic.
Glenn Greenwald, an Intercept co-founder and former journalist at The Guardian, said there are “thousands upon thousands of documents” that journalists have chosen not to publish because they would harm peoples’ reputation or privacy rights or because it would expose “legitimate surveillance programs.”
U.S. intelligence officials say they are still counting the cost of his disclosures that went beyond actual intelligence collected to how it was collected. Evanina said intelligence agencies are finishing their seventh classified assessment of the damage.
Joel Melstad, a spokesman for the counterintelligence center, said five U.S. intelligence agencies contributed to the latest damage assessment, which itself is highly classified. Melstad said damage has been observed or verified in five categories of information the U.S. government keeps classified to protect national security.
Snowden-disclosed documents have put U.S. personnel or facilities at risk around the world, damaged intelligence collection efforts, exposed tools used to amass intelligence, destabilized U.S. partnerships abroad and exposed U.S. intelligence operations, capabilities and priorities.
“With each additional disclosure, the damage is compounded — providing more detail to what our adversaries have already learned,” Melstad said.
Steven Aftergood, a declassification expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said he thinks intelligence agencies are continuing to do Snowden damage assessments because the disclosures’ relevance to foreign targets might take time to recognize and understand. He said the way that intelligence targets adapt based on information revealed and the impact on how the U.S. collects intelligence could continue for years. But he said that any damage that Snowden caused to U.S. intelligence partners abroad would have been felt immediately after the disclosures began in 2013.
Moscow has resisted U.S. pressure to extradite Snowden, who faces U.S. charges that could land him in prison for up to 30 years. From exile, Snowden often does online public speaking and has been active in developing tools that reporters can use, especially in authoritarian countries, to detect whether they are under surveillance.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.