WASHINGTON — The heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees suggested Sunday that Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, may have been working for Russian spy services while he was employed at an agency facility in Hawaii last year and before he disclosed hundreds of thousands of classified government documents.
The lawmakers, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., offered no specific evidence that Snowden cooperated with Moscow. Since his disclosure first became public last spring, there has been much speculation that he was collaborating with a foreign spy service.
Nearly a year later, however, there has been no public indication that the FBI’s investigation of Snowden’s actions, bolstered by separate “damage assessment” investigations at the NSA and the Pentagon, has uncovered evidence that Snowden received help from a foreign intelligence service. A senior FBI official said Sunday that it was still the bureau’s conclusion that Snowden acted alone.
The questions raised by Rogers and Feinstein came as the FBI continues its investigation of Snowden, and as the debate rages about whether he was a traitor, a whistle-blower or a violator of his oaths who nonetheless started what President Obama again last week called an important debate. To some, he is all three.
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The initial portrayals of Snowden depicted a young man shocked by the scope of government surveillance and determined to expose it. In his insistence that he would release only documents showing what he viewed as government wrongdoing or overreach by intelligence agencies, he appeared to be cultivating an image as a whistle-blower.
The main recipients of his materials, including The Washington Post and The Guardian, have said that Snowden insisted that material revealing operations, but no wrongdoing, should not appear in public.
But Rogers described a very different view of Snowden, as a man who, from the beginning, may have knowingly or unknowingly been directed by a foreign intelligence service. He said the mass of military data in the Snowden trove clearly had nothing to do with privacy or the reach of intelligence services, and he suggested that Snowden’s possession of a “go bag” to get out of Hawaii, and his smooth entry into Hong Kong, indicated preplanning beyond his individual capacity.
Intelligence officials say they have no doubt that Chinese and Russian intelligence obtained whatever information Snowden was carrying with him digitally. They also say it is possible that much of the data Snowden took is stored in an Internet cloud service.
Snowden has said that he did not turn over any documents to any foreign governments; U.S. officials say that given the cyber skills of the Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies, they assume that those countries could have gotten them without Snowden’s knowledge.
Obama weighed in on the subject in a newly released interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker. He insisted that Snowden had not revealed any illegalities, and, while he may have raised “legitimate policy questions,” the question was, “Is the only way to do that by giving some 29-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information, much of which is definitely legal, definitely necessary for national security, and should properly be classified?”
Obama insisted that “the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it.” But he did not say what that way was, and even his own aides acknowledge that if Snowden had not made so much information public, it was doubtful that the president would have announced the reforms and further studies of NSA actions that he spoke about Friday.
On Sunday, Rogers appeared to hinge many of his suspicions about Snowden on a recent Defense Intelligence Agency report that he has described in other interviews as concluding that Snowden stole about 1.7 million intelligence files that concern vital operations of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. He said that it would cost billions of dollars to change operations because of the security breaches.
The defense intelligence report remains classified, though some members of Congress have been briefed on it in recent weeks.
“I don’t think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB,” Rogers said on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” referring to the Federal Security Service, the Russian state security organization that succeeded the KGB.
Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who advises Snowden, said in a telephone interview Sunday that Rogers’ statement was “not only false, it is silly.”
Wizner said that Snowden’s actions before seeking asylum in Russia were not consistent with someone who was working for a foreign government, pointing out that Snowden flew to Hong Kong, where he gave classified documents to U.S. journalists. He then sought to travel to Ecuador, and was marooned for five weeks in the transit zone of Moscow’s international airport while he sought asylum in some 20 countries.