Today marks the two year anniversary of the first Snowden disclosures. The anniversary was marked not just with a Snowden op-ed published by the New York Times titled “The World Says No to Surveillance,” but also a major new Vice story on the government’s damage assessment based on documents FOIAed by Jason Leopold.
As Vice notes, the FOIAed documents show how the government provided talking points to members of Congress — some of whom emphasized in briefings they were looking to discredit Snowden — which were then leaked to the press.
After the DIA completed a damage assessment report about how Snowden apparently compromised US counterterrorism operations and threatened national security on December 18, 2013, leaks from the classified report immediately started to surface in the media. They were sourced to members of Congress and unnamed officials who cast Snowden as a “traitor.”
On December 18, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus published a column, citing anonymous sources, that contained details from the Snowden damage assessment. Three days earlier, 60 Minutes had broadcast a report that was widely condemned as overly sympathetic to the NSA. Foreign Policy and Bloomberg published news stories on January 9, 2014, three days after the damage assessment report was turned over to six congressional oversight committees. Both of those reports quoted a statement from Republican congressional leaders who cited the DIA’s classified damage assessment report and asserted that Snowden’s leaks endangered the lives of US military personnel.
The documents also show that these assessment reports had really basic errors, in one report even getting the date of the first leaks wrong, dating them to June 7 rather than June 5, 2013.
Such errors ought to raise questions about the other claims from the report, such as that Snowden took 900,000 documents pertaining to DOD issues. After all, if analysts can’t even copy a public date from a newspaper correctly, how accurate are their more difficult calculations?
Perhaps the most interesting detail in the FOIAed documents, however, pertains to discussions of funding tied to mitigation of the leaks. In part because Defense Intelligence Agency briefers were meeting with appropriations committees on this topic as often as oversight committees, members wanted to know whether DOD needed more money to respond to the leaks (which, after all, happened because DOD had not installed the insider threat software Congress had ordered it to install years before). Thus, even as members were demanding more information to discredit Snowden in this February 5, 2014 briefing, a few were asking what all this would cost.
At one level that makes sense: if Snowden really took as much as they claimed he had, it would have required a lot more money to respond to. But according to the documents, DOD didn’t need anything beyond what had already been appropriated, at least as late as February 6, 2014.
But as time went on, and particularly after DOD delayed three months before sharing a second, June 2014 report, with Congress, staffers warned that Members of Congress were getting antsy, as in a September 9, 2014 briefing when House and Senate Armed Services Committee staffers warned that DIA had better focus more on what it would take to mitigate Snowden’s leaks and how much it would cost.
Clearly, the House staffers knew their boss, because in what appears to be the September 11, 2014 hearing that the September 9 staff briefing prepared for, House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry said “it was hard to think of something that has happened in the world that is more deserving of a response and can affect future funding” than the Snowden leaks.
After several more briefings at which Members asked why DIA was stalling on their latest report, the government finally provided the June report later in September, 2014. Unlike the earlier report, there was no blitz of leaks associated with it, making exaggerated claims about the damage.
We can’t tell what happened here: whether DOD simply had nothing to report and so delayed telling that to Congress, whether they hadn’t started doing the work of mitigating the leaks, or whether — as Snowden has suggested — DIA vastly overestimated what he had taken and therefore didn’t have as much to mitigate as originally claimed.
But one thing is clear: Members of Congress wanted bad news about Snowden to leak, even as they wanted to throw more money at the people reporting any bad news about Snowden.