Defense Officials Indicate NSA Leaks Have Had Consequences

Washington is still trying to determine how much damage has been done as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA surveillance. Snowden allegedly encrypted the files he took with him, but some officials fear Chinese or Russian intelligence services gained access to Snowden's computers.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

The tussle over Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker-turned-fugitive, is now playing out on five continents.

MONTAGNE: Officials in Russia, where he's believed to be staying, call Snowden a human rights hero.

GREENE: Propaganda machines are also at work in China and in Ecuador, where Snowden may seek asylum.

MONTAGNE: President Obama, traveling in Africa, says Snowden should be returned to the United States to face espionage charges.

GREENE: And officials in Washington say the Snowden leaks are threatening national security.

Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: U.S. officials say they now have a good idea what secrets Ed Snowden took. They're not yet sure how much other governments have learned about U.S. intelligence activities, but they do say his leaks have had consequences. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke this week at a Pentagon briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENTAGON BRIEFING)

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: There was damage. The extent of the damage will be determined. But just simply stated, if our adversaries know the way in which we try to gain information about them, then clearly, they will seek to change their tactics.

GJELTEN: A senior intelligence official says there are indications that al-Qaida elements are either talking about or changing their communication practices in response to what Snowden has revealed of U.S. surveillance techniques. The worst case scenario: Chinese or Russian intelligence services have managed to copy Snowden's computer files.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution here yesterday, General Dempsey said it's not clear what can be done to keep someone like Snowden from spilling the secrets to which he has access.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENTAGON BRIEFING)

DEMPSEY: You can certainly increase the scrutiny in terms of their background investigations. You can put different degrees of oversight in place. But, you know, at some point, if somebody is going to break the law and commit an act of treason - I don't know what he'll eventually be charged with - or espionage, there are going to be people that do that.

GJELTEN: One clear consequence of Snowden's disclosures has been the damage they've done to U.S. efforts to put pressure on China over its cyber-espionage. In a newspaper interview last week, Snowden said the NSA is hacking into Chinese telecom networks, and into the computers at a prominent Beijing university.

U.S. officials are especially angry about those claims. They have little to do with Snowden's expressed wish to prompt debate about surveillance programs aimed at American citizens. But such disclosures have great propaganda value for China. Says one U.S. businessman who deals often with Beijing: This will make the Chinese insufferable.

Right on cue, the Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing yesterday said the news of U.S. hacking into Chinese computers shows the United States has a double standard when it comes to cyber-security. But U.S. officials insist that any cyber-spying they do is normal intelligence gathering, while what the Chinese do is to steal trade secrets for the benefit of their commercial companies.

Again, General Dempsey.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENTAGON BRIEFING)

DEMPSEY: All nations on the face of the planet always conduct intelligence operations in all domains. We're no different. They're no different. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about other activities in cyber that I think bear additional scrutiny.

GJELTEN: Commercial espionage, stealing economic secrets, is prohibited under U.S. law. Moreover, it doesn't make sense, as China expert James Mulvenon explained this week at a public forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council.

JAMES MULVENON: The reason why the United States does not engage in commercial espionage on behalf of its companies is for the simple practical reasons that we wouldn't know how to share the proceeds.

GJELTEN: Mulvenon is vice president for intelligence at The Defense Group, a private research firm. He pointed out that in China and other countries, there are state-owned telecom or energy or chemical companies that the governments have an interest in helping. That's not true in the United States. Say, for example the CIA stole 4G technology from Huawei, China's big telecom firm.

MULVENON: Who does the U.S. government give it to? Do you give it to Cisco? Do you give it to Juniper? Do you give it to Cisco and Juniper?

GJELTEN: Or to other Silicon Valley firms that might see a commercial advantage to be gained from using that Chinese technology?

The challenge of dealing with Edward Snowden's disclosures and his activities in Hong Kong, provide dramatic new background for the annual U.S.-China strategic dialogue with Beijing. Those meetings will be held here in Washington next month, and cyber-security and trade issues are high on the agenda.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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