Exclusive: NSA Director Was Secretly Briefed on 22 Counter-Intelligence Operations Undermined by Snowden Leaks

New docs show Director of NSA and President were secretly briefed on “significant” damage to CI operations
US News • Views: 23,672

Since Edward Snowden absconded from the National Security Agency last year with hundreds of thousands of classified documents, the NSA has made several public statements on the leaks, citing “grave damage”, “catastrophic impact” and the “worst leak in history”, but refused to comment on the specifics of the damage caused.

But now, thanks to documents declassified as part of a FOIA request, we can exclusively reveal that senior NSA staff secretly briefed their own director and the President that 22 ongoing counter intelligence operations had been impacted as a direct result of the leaks - 11 were “significantly” undermined.

The briefings took place in July last year - within weeks of Snowden’s first leaks reaching the press, and just days after Snowden revealed how the NSA spied on the Russian President.

The documents - obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act - centre around an email exchange between Chris Inglis - then Deputy Director and head of day-to-day operations at NSA - who asked Richard Legett - the head of the Media Leaks taskforce for a “no BS” counter-intelligence damage assessment for a classified briefing to the White House.

The redacted document blacks out the specifics of the operations affected, but simple analysis of the redacted areas show the number of operations affected.

In Legett’s document, briefed to the Director of the NSA and later briefed to the President, Legett gave details of 11 counter-intelligence operations that were “significantly impacted” - meaning that the NSA was scrambling to repair the damage. A further 11 CI operations were “moderately” impacted, meaning the NSA thought it could contain the damage, but the damage was still significant enough for the NSA to brief the President on it.

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It’s worth remembering that counter-intelligence isn’t just about stopping diplomatic secrets from being leaked: In 2006, British counter-intelligence failed to stop Alexander Litvinenko - a UK citizen - from being assassinated on the streets of London by Russian intelligence.

In 2010 the FBI arrested 10 Russian SVR deep cover operatives operating in the United States - including Anna Chapman - who were tasked with recruiting US policy-makers including White House officials and political fundraisers. Their task was to steal secrets relating to US foreign policy, military weaknesses and “United States policy with regard to the use of the Internet by terrorists”.

The declassified document comes in stark contrast to the sensationalism and absurdity that has bedevilled so much of the past year of revelations. It’s a timely reminder that NSA has important tasks to do - like counter-intelligence - and that the leaking of huge volumes of classified documents about how the NSA targets America’s enemies has inevitable and serious damage to their ability to protect the nation.

It’s also a vindication of all the NSA officials who have spent the past year saying the damage was serious and real, but they were deliberately withholding the details for fear of compounding the damage.

Now at least, we know that’s true.

Also see

Read the email exchange

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Last updated: 2016-01-01 10:29 am PST
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