NSA slams Snowden but accepts need for high-level debate on privacy

The deputy director of the NSA has accepted the need for a "macro" level debate about privacy and security but rejects the characterisation of Edward Snowden as a whistleblower.

Like or unlike, Edward Snowden has changed the privacy/surveillance debate
Like or unlike, Edward Snowden has changed the privacy/surveillance debate

Richard Ledgett, deputy director of the US National Security Agency (NSA) since April 2014, said in an interview with BBC Radio 4 this morning that many hundreds of targets that the NSA monitors realised in the wake of the Snowden revelations that they were vulnerable, jeopardising the work of the intelligence services.

He said that a “macro” level debate was need but he didn't like the way that it had come about.

He said that if Snowden believes in the principles of what he did, he should return to the US to face the consequences.

Edward Snowden worked in the NSA as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton in 2013. He fled the US in May 2013 and the following month began revealing thousands of classified NSA documents. He was charged by the US Department of Justice in June 2013 with violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property.

“We have kept track of what our targets have said about disclosure and what that means for them, and we have seen high hundreds of  targets who have said, hey, we are vulnerable to these sorts of detection techniques and we need to change the way we do that, and a number of them have, including several terrorist organisations and one in particular that had a mature operational plot directed against Western Europe and the US. So we have actually seen them move away from our ability to, uh, to do that as a result of those disclosures – as a direct result,” Ledgett told the BBC.

Ledgett accepted it's important to have a debate about privacy and surveillance but the ramifications for security has been very high. “I think it's a great discussion to have, part of the transparency discussion that we are having,” he said. “I think that at a macro level we are working to be more transparent. There are things that we can and should talk about more publicly, like what our authorities are, how we use those authorities.

“There are things that we can't be transparent about, things like specific operations, specific targets. That's where transparency gets harder,” he added.

He rejects the notion that Snowden was a whistleblower in the classic sense of the word. “You hear claims that he was a whistleblower and that he tried to raise things. That was just not true,” he said.

Snowden's lawyer, Jesselyn Radack of ExposeFacts.org, said in a recent interview that it would have been impossible for Snowden to work through official whistleblower channels.  “Tom Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis did go through the proper channels, and all of them fell under criminal investigations for having done so,” she said.

Radack told reason.com that intelligence agency whistleblowers who came before Snowden were not afforded legal protection: “For all the people out there shouting that Edward Snowden should have gone through proper channels, there aren't that many channels for national security and intelligence whistleblowers. They are excluded from most avenues available to other whistleblowers.” 

Ledgett said he had no knowledge of any deals in the works to allow Snowden to return from his sanctuary in Russia, adding: “I think if he truly believes in what he said, that this was a principled stand, if he truly believes in that, then I think that part of taking a principled stand is taking the consequences.”

Brian Lord, former deputy director for intelligence and cyber-operations at GCHQ and now managing director at PGI Cyber, told the Today Programme that society is operating in a very different environment. “What we are seeing is a fundamental change in the way that the world operates. [We're] moving heavily to an online environment. That brings with it opportunities and risks. Therefore as a consequence, the way that national security organisations, the way industry works, therefore has to change and there has to be some degree of transparency to allow the public to adjust accordingly,” he said.

However, the public will have to adjust their expectations of how cyber-security and privacy works on the internet. “The availability of personal data is very wide and of course organisations – government and industry – have to look after people's personal data, but the public have to understand what the reality of an online world is,” he said.

We asked Edward Snowden for a comment but we had not received a reply at the time of posting this article. 

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