Mortal Danger?

01.30.14

Did an Angry Birds Leak Risk Spies’ Lives?

So far, the U.S. intelligence community has described the damage from Edward Snowden’s leaks in vague terms. Now they say the leaks could have fatal consequences–especially the one about the U.S. spying on smartphone apps.

Thanks to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the world now knows that America’s intelligence agencies snoop on people through smartphone apps like Angry Birds. The U.S. intelligence community is now saying that this story, along with another disclosure of the U.S. “black budget,” has placed spies in grave danger.

That was the claim put forth Wednesday by U.S. intelligence officials. During a Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted that the damage done by Snowden “includes putting the lives of members or assets of the intelligence community at risk as well as our armed forces, diplomats, and citizens.” He made this claim in his opening statement on behalf of the leaders of the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counter-Terrorism Center.

Clapper provided no evidence or specifics to back up the charge in his public testimony. But a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that two specific Snowden disclosures led to the new assessment. This official pointed to the documents published this week by the New York Times about the NSA’s efforts to hack into popular smart phone apps like Angry Birds. The Times ended up publishing some documents that did not redact the names of active intelligence officers.

The other story pointed out by the official was a Washington Post expose in September that published the justification for the “black budget” that details everything the non-military side of the intelligence community does, from programs to eavesdrop on foreign communications to the budget for recruiting foreign agents in specific countries. Former interim CIA director Michael Morell told CBS’s 60 Minutes last year that the black budget leak was particularly damaging because it gave adversary intelligence services a road map to U.S. collection activities.

In the past, top Obama administration officials have described Snowden’s damage to the United States in terms of giving America’s adversaries a primer on U.S. espionage tradecraft. Clapper’s statement marks the first time leaders of the intelligence community have said the former NSA contractor’s disclosures placed human agents in the field in harm’s way.

Clapper’s assertion on Wednesday contradicts the point made by Snowden and his defenders that his leaking was meant to damage surveillance systems and not the intelligence officers who work overseas. Last year, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the first NSA stories from Snowden’s leaks, told The Daily Beast that Snowden “was very insistent he does not want to publish documents to harm individuals or blow anyone’s undercover status.”

Clapper’s statement marks the first time leaders of the intelligence community have said the former NSA contractor’s disclosures placed human agents in the field in harm’s way.

On Wednesday, Greenwald told The Daily Beast, “National security officials in general have repeatedly falsely accused people of endangering national security to scare the public, and James Clapper in particular has been caught lying to the Senate to protect himself. These claims are without evidence and no rational [person] would treat them as fact.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Daily Beast following the hearing that she agreed that the lives of assets and officers were placed at risk. “There is no question in my mind about that, because as various programs are revealed, assets who provide information about certain things also can be revealed, maybe not even by name. The minute you start to unpeel the onion, the opposition can figure it out.”

Clapper’s stark assessment of Snowden’s impact comes after a classified damage assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The study examined both the harm caused by the leaks of intelligence information to news outlets and also the prospective damage that would be caused if the full cache of documents taken by Snowden were to end up in the hands of foreign governments.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Susan Collins said she had read the DIA damage assessment. “Most of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden have nothing to do with the privacy rights and civil liberties of American citizens or even the NSA surveillance programs,” she said, referring to the report.

Gen. Michael Flynn, the DIA director, said the greatest cost of the Snowden leak is “unknown today,” but he said it would be borne in the “cost of human lives in tomorrow’s battlefield or in some place we will put our military forces in harm’s way.”

A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the DIA assessment told The Daily Beast the agency concludes that Snowden fabricated the identity of more than one “super user” or senior intelligence official who had access to vast troves of classified information. This allowed Snowden to extract documents that revealed the nature of how the United States coordinates its satellite coverage with other large signal collection platforms.

The DIA assessment, this source said, focused largely on the damage done to the military. The report concluded that the United States would find it more difficult to hide important military assets from potential enemies, the source added, and large powers like Russia would now find it easier to hide those assets from the United States. The source didn’t mention whether any of those assets would be hidden in an Angry Birds game.