A bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers solicited details from Pentagon officials that they could use to "damage" former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's "credibility in the press and the court of public opinion."
That's according to declassified government documents obtained exclusively by VICE News in response to a long-running Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. The lawmakers' requests for information were made in December 2013 and again in February 2014, following classified briefings top officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) held for oversight committees in the House and Senate about a DIA assessment of the alleged damage to national security caused by Snowden's leak of top-secret documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, and Laura Poitras.
The documents, which originated in the DIA's Office of Corporate Communications, contain the most detailed information to date about the DIA's yearlong discussions with Congress about Snowden's leaks and the costs of the Pentagon's efforts to allay the damage. But the 35 pages of documents do not contain any concrete examples of damage to national security because DIA redacted those details.
However, the documents contain a startling claim revealed here for the first time: Snowden took "over 900,000" Department of Defense (DoD) files — more documents than he downloaded from the NSA about the agency's surveillance programs, according to an undated two-page DIA report that was prepared for the head of a task force that assessed the damage caused by Snowden's leaks in advance of the official briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee. The report references a chart that provides a "breakdown" of the "data sets" Snowden took and the "locations from where they were copied." However, the DIA withheld the information on national security grounds.
Yet in a separate February 6, 2014 summary of a congressional briefing DIA officials held for House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense staffers, DIA officials were not as explicit about how much information Snowden took from the DoD. The summary, which included included a "short overview of the timeline of the disclosures by Edward Snowden," said committee staffers "appeared surprised and concerned at the extent of the Department of Defense information that was potentially compromised by Edward Snowden."
"Many of the [staffers] were interested in Edward Snowden's background, motivations and tactics. Those questions were deferred to [redacted] for future briefings," the congressional summary says. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense was regularly briefed by DIA because it was funding the agency's work to mitigate the damage from the Snowden leaks.
The document goes on to say that committee staffers were told Snowden downloaded military files that "could negatively impact future military operations." But DIA did not disclose details about exactly how that would happen.
David Leatherwood, the DIA's director of operations, explained in a May 21 declaration filed in US District Court in Washington, DC what some of the military intelligence information DIA discussed with Congress relates to and why the agency believes the information must remain classified.
In a paragraph on page three of the documents DIA turned over to VICE News, Leatherwood said "DIA describes the classified discussions [with Congress] concerning the impact of the Snowden disclosures on military plans and operations. The paragraph refers to the assessment of the scope of that impact, and thus warrants classification. Disclosure of the information would degrade the military capabilities of the United States ... "
Additionally, Leatherwood said one paragraph on page twelve of the documents was redacted because it refers to "a nuclear program or facility." Another paragraph on the same page "relates to vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructure, projects, plans or protective services related to national security."
Some information within the remaining pages of the congressional briefing documents was withheld because it pertains to "strength and deployment of forces, troop movements, ship sailings, the location and timing of planned attacks, tactics and strategy, operations of weapons systems and supply logistics" and, within two pages, "scientific or technological capabilities related to national security."
"I have determined that the disclosure of this information could reasonably be expected to enable persons and groups hostile to the United States to identify U.S. intelligence activities, methods or sources, and to design countermeasures to defeat them," Leatherwood said.
In a statement last year, Snowden denied DoD and intelligence officials' claims he deliberately downloaded military files. "They rely on a baseless premise, which is that I was after military information," Snowden said.
VICE News has not been able to identify any Snowden-related stories published over the past two years that were based on files the DIA said Snowden downloaded from DoD.
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After the DIA completed a damage assessment report on December 18, 2013, about how Snowden apparently compromised US counterterrorism operations and threatened national security, 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.
As the weeks passed, according to the DIA documents, more members of Congress were eager to publicly discredit Snowden.
"Members from both sides (Reps. Richard Nugent, Austin Scott, Henry "Hank" Johnson, Jr. and Susan Davis) repeatedly pressed the [DIA] briefers for information from the [Snowden damage] report to be made releasable to the public," states a February 6, 2014 DIA summary prepared for then-DIA director Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and deputy director David Shedd about a briefing on the Snowden leaks for members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
"[Redacted] explained the restrictions were to [redacted] but the members appeared unmoved by this argument. Overall, HASC [House Armed Services Committee] members were both appreciative of the report and expressed repeatedly that this information needed to be shared with the American public."
The DIA documents obtained by VICE News were released exactly two years after the Guardian published its first report from the cache of documents leaked by Snowden, and during the same week that some of the same lawmakers who sought to discredit Snowden passed a bill that ended the NSA's bulk collection of domestic phone records and Internet metadata — the very program revealed in the first Guardian report. The legislative change is the first time since 9/11 that both houses of Congress have agreed to place a limit on the government's surveillance powers.
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The DIA documents also resolve the thorny question about the genesis of the claim that Snowden downloaded 1.7 million files. For more than a year, the allegation has been cited as fact in numerous news reports but never directly attributed to a named government official.
In a report published on the Intercept in May 2014, Greenwald excoriated journalists for "repeatedly affirming the inflammatory evidence-free claim that Snowden took 1.7 million documents," a number which he said "always has been pure fabrication."
Now, the DIA documents make clear that the accusation came from a list of unclassified Defense Department talking points sent to Congress on January 8, 2014, a day before Foreign Policy and Bloomberg published their reports that contained the same DIA talking points.
"A former NSA contractor downloaded nearly 1.7 million files from Intelligence Community (IC) systems. This is the single greatest quantitative potential compromise of secrets in US history," states the first of five Defense Department talking points.
The other talking points, which do not offer insight into the specific damage Snowden is said to have caused, say:
Much of the information compromised [by Snowden] has the potential to gravely impact the National Security of the United States, to include the Department of Defense [DoD] and its capabilities.
While most of the reporting to date in the press has centered on NSA's acquisition of foreign intelligence to protect the lives of our citizens and allies, the files cover sensitive topics well beyond the NSA collection. Disclosure of this information in the press and to adversaries has the potential to put Defense personnel in harm's way and jeopardize the success of DoD operations.
These unauthorized disclosures have tipped off our adversaries to intelligence sources and methods and negatively impacted our Allies who partner with us to fight terrorism, cyber crimes, human and narcotics trafficking, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Such international cooperation involving the pooling of information, technology, and expertise is critical to preserve our security and that of our allies.
Snowden is identified by name on some pages of the documents and as a "Person of Interest" or "POI" on other pages due to the government's criminal case against him. During one classified briefing the damage assessment task force officials held for members of the House Intelligence Committee on Intelligence, lawmakers asked why Snowden, "who claims publicly to be seeking to reform NSA… acquired so many DoD files unrelated to NSA activities."
"[Redacted] explained that [Snowden] appeared to have acquired all files he could reach" was the answer. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers and Congressman Adam Schiff "raised the issue that most documents were DoD related — which [redacted] confirmed — and both the congressmen stated they believed this simple fact was both unclassified… and was important for changing the narrative" about Snowden, states an undated summary of the House Intelligence Committee briefing the DIA prepared for Flynn and Shedd.
The summary went on to say that much of the briefing was spent on "Q&A with topics including the cost of mitigation, the risk to soldiers on the ground, defense vulnerabilities as a result of the compromise, and the scope of data secured by the Person of Interest."
The DIA summary noted that then-House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon and then-chairman of the Intelligence, Emerging Threats, and Capabilities subcommittee, Representative Mac Thornberry, held a press conference after the DIA briefing in which they referred to Snowden as a "traitor" and "not a whistleblower."
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The DIA documents contain new revelations about the make-up of the so-called Information Review Task Force (IRTF) charged with assessing the damage from the Snowden leaks that specifically pertain to military files he downloaded. (Earlier this year, the DIA turned over to VICE News 151 pages of its Snowden damage assessments that were completely redacted.)
According to the documents, "on any given day," between 200 and 250 people from DoD "triage, analyze, and assess DoD impacts related to the Snowden compromise." Summaries of the briefings the DIA held for Congress also reference a previously unknown entity: the Joint Staff Mitigation Oversight Task Force (MOTF), which was entrusted with, among other things, assessing the financial costs of "mitigation efforts" resulting from the Snowden leaks in quarterly reports. The NSA has its own Snowden task force that also assessed the alleged damage to national security his leaks about the agency's surveillance programs caused.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing last year, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the mitigation task force "will need to function for about two years ... and I suspect it could cost billions of dollars to overcome the loss of security that has been imposed on us."
The Department of Defense said it first learned that Snowden took documents containing Department of Defense information on July 10, 2013, about a month after Snowden disclosed that he was the source of the leaks about the NSA's controversial surveillance programs.
In response, Flynn, the DIA director, "directed the standup of a DoD Task Force to tackle the compromise," states the two-page DIA task force report that was prepared for an official gearing up to brief the Senate Intelligence Committee on the task force's work. "Rather than start from scratch, key members of the task force that assessed the WikiLeaks compromise in 2010 were again brought together to form the nucleus of the 'Information Review Task Force-2. Led by DIA, and working in coordination with the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive and our Intelligence Community partners, the IRTF-2 includes representations from the military services, the combatant commands, and Joint Chiefs of Staff.'"
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VICE founder Shane Smith interviews Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
The WikiLeaks reference pertains to leaks of hundreds of thousands of government documents to the transparency organization by Chelsea Manning, who was convicted on espionage charges in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Although the DIA released a copy of its second damage assessment report to me last year — albeit a redacted version that did not contain any specific details to support the conclusion that Snowden caused "grave damage" to national security — members of the House Intelligence Committee said the report was "excellent and timely."
The documents reveal that the DIA also completed an even earlier version of a damage assessment report, which congressional staffers said was "one of the most well-read documents by Members in recent years." It's unknown when that task force report was released. Neither the DIA nor spokespeople for lawmakers who were briefed about the Snowden damage reports would comment for this story.
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The DIA's briefings for Congress continued through last September, according to the documents, which reveal that House and Senate Armed Services Committee members were frustrated that the DIA did not share another damage assessment report with the committee that the DIA completed months earlier.
At one briefing that month, Thornberry said "this was a briefing he did not want to miss as it has been a long time since he received an update on what information was compromised and the impact to US national security."
"He also mentioned that it was hard to think of something that has happened in the world that is more deserving of a response and that can affect future funding" of the DIA, according to the DIA's congressional briefing summary.
But another DIA congressional briefing summary, dated September 9, 2014 and sent to DIA deputy director David Shedd, said DIA officials were also "warned" by committee staffers that lawmakers "would be frustrated" if the so-called Joint Staff Mitigation Oversight Task Force "could not show progress and provide specific examples of steps taken to mitigate damage done to capabilities, plans, and partnerships by the [Snowden] breach."
A Senate Armed Services Committee staffer "commented that he felt the [Mitigation Oversight Task Force] briefers were trying to lower expectations."
The Senate staffer "recommended focusing less on process and more on mitigation efforts and anticipated costs" of reining in the damage, says the document, which summarized a briefing the DIA and Mitigation task force members held for House and Senate Armed Services Committee staffers.
Ultimately, the lawmakers' efforts to use the information provided to Congress by DIA briefers to discredit Snowden didn't work, according to Snowden's attorney, Ben Wizner of the ACLU.
"Once again, we see that the intelligence community leaked classified information [last year] in order to excoriate Edward Snowden for leaking classified information," Wizner told VICE News. "The difference is that Snowden provided information [to] journalists to inform the public about the government's actions, and the government leaked information in order to misinform the public about his."
This story has been updated to reflect comments made in a sworn declaration by the DIA's David Leatherwood about the reason the agency withheld certain information in the congressional briefing documents.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold