By Edward Jay Epstein,
Edward Snowden’s theft of files, whatever good it accomplished in igniting a national conversation on surveillance, also opened the door to more aggressive Russian intrusions in cyberspace. How could it not? According to the unanimous report of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Snowden removed digital copies of 1.5 million files; 900,000 of them originated not with the NSA but Department of Defense documents, and concerned, among other things, the newly created joint Cyber Command. Other stolen files contained documents that originated with the British signal intelligence service, known as GCHQ, which Snowden had used his special access to obtain. One NSA file, a 31,000-page database, included requests to the NSA made by the 16 other agencies in the Intelligence Community for coverage of foreign targets. NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett, who headed the NSA’s damage assessment, described this database as the “keys to the kingdom” because it provided a roadmap to all of the gaps in coverage of Russia and other adversaries.
When sensitive compartmentalized information (SCI) is removed without authorization from the NSA’s secure facilities, as it was by Snowden, it is, by definition, compromised, regardless of what is done with it. Whether Snowden gave these files to journalists, Russians or Chinese intelligence, erased them or threw them in the Pacific Ocean, all the sources in them had to be considered compromised and shut down. So did the methods they revealed. The Pentagon, which did a more extensive damage assessment than the NSA, assigned hundreds of intelligence officers, in round-the-clock shifts, to go through each of the 1.5 million files to find all of the fatally compromised sources and methods in them. The self-destruct button then had to be pressed to close them down. Doing so punched a deep hole in the capabilities of the NSA, the Cyber Command, the British GCHQ, and other allied intelligence services—so deep that Booz Allen Vice-Chairman Michael McConnell, who had previously headed both the NSA and the office of National Intelligence, said, “An entire generation of intelligence was lost.” One measure of the seriousness of the ensuing blindness was the NSA’s failure to detect Russia’s preparations for the invasion of Ukraine in early 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal.