Top congressional leaders lobbed sweeping claims on Sunday that the Russians may have assisted former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in exposing secret U.S. surveillance programs.
“There are some security things that he did get around that are clearly above his capabilities,” House Intelligence Chair Rogers said on Face the Nation. The Michigan Republican repeated the allegations on Meet the Press and said he didn’t think it was a coincidence that Snowden ended up in “the loving arms” of Russian intelligence agents.
“Some of the things we’re finding we would call clues that certainly would indicate to me that he had some help,” Rogers said.
Rogers provided no evidence to support his claims, which contradict what many experts and Obama administration have said publicly. “Chairman Rogers’ statements this morning were flatly contrary to the numerous briefings I have received from USG officials with first hand knowledge of the Snowden affair,” said NBC News National Security Analyst Michael Leiter. A senior administration official told NBC News that the White House has no comment on the allegations, citing an ongoing investigation.
Nonetheless, Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein backed up Rogers claims on Meet the Press by suggesting Snowden “may well have” had assistance from Russian intelligence officers. “We don’t know at this stage,” the California Democrat said.
Texas Republican and Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul added to the crowd of congressional skeptics in telling This Week host George Stephanopolous he believes Snowden was “cultivated by a foreign power.”
Neither went into detail backing up their assertions.
The top intel leaders launched virtually no criticism of the NSA when discussing President Obama’s proposed changes to the agency’s bulk data collection programs.
Some of the staunchest supporters of government surveillance criticized Obama’s plan to store telephone metadata under the control of a third party rather than the NSA. Rogers said on CNN’s State of the Union that the president’s speech left “a lot of uncertainty” over the NSA’s programs and that America’s ability to deter terrorist threats could be hurt.
McCaul said the president’s changes are “moving in the right direction,” but questioned what body would have the capacity to handle the data. Looking forward to the end of March, when Attorney General Eric Holder will deliver recommendations on how to store metadata, McCaul said, “Who other than the NSA has the capability to handle this data?” he asked.
Democratic leaders also focused more on the specter of terrorism than on civil liberties concerns. Feinstein defended the NSA’s original efforts. “The whole purpose of this program is to provide instantaneous information, to disrupt any plot that might be taking place,” she said. Feinstein also minimized the government’s collection again by comparing it to data mining by private companies.
Even critics of the NSA’s efforts had good things to say about the president’s promises. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, said he would not oppose Obama’s proposal but that “There’s going to be a lot of questions between both Republicans and Democrats concerned we’re going too much into the privacy of Americans.”