Snowden is still in contact with Russian intelligence, House report charges

Newly declassified passages from a highly critical House Intelligence Committee report on Edward Snowden assert that since arriving in Moscow the former NSA contractor “has had, and continues to have, contact with Russian intelligence services.”

Minutes after the report was released Thursday, Snowden’s chief lawyer, Ben Wizner, tweeted that the report was “petulant nonsense.” Snowden has adamantly denied such contacts, most recently this month in an interview with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric. Snowden told Couric he gave Russian officials “the stiff-arm” when they first approached him in 2013, and that since then, while living with President Vladimir Putin’s approval as a fugitive in Moscow, “they have left me alone, for the most part.”

The panel’s newly declassified 33-page report, which is being released this morning, cites classified U.S. intelligence reporting to support its assertion of continuous contacts with Russian intelligence — an especially explosive charge in light of the current uproar in Washington over Russian interference in the U.S. election.

But all details of that intelligence reporting are still classified and blacked out in the report, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to assess. The charge comes at a time when Snowden’s defenders — who portray him as a courageous whistleblower who exposed U.S. surveillance abuses — are making their final, uphill pitch for a pardon before President Obama leaves office.

His lawyers have also repeatedly pointed out he has also criticized Russian surveillance practices; in his interview with Couric, Snowden said these “severe” criticisms have made him a “liability” to the Russians.

“The House committee spent three years and millions of dollars in a failed attempt to discredit Edward Snowden, whose actions led to the most significant intelligence reforms in a generation,” Wizner said in a statement after the committee’s release. “The report wholly ignores Snowden’s repeated and courageous criticism of Russian surveillance and censorship laws. It combines demonstrable falsehoods with deceptive inferences to paint an entirely fictional portrait of an American whistleblower.

“For all of its harsh rhetoric, the report contains no evidence whatsoever that Snowden’s intentions were anything other than public-minded, that his actions caused harm, or that he is under foreign influence — because no such evidence exists,” he added. “In fact, the NSA’s former deputy director has stated publicly that he does not believe that Snowden acted under the influence of a foreign power.”

A U.S. government official told Yahoo News the committee’s characterization of continuing contacts between Snowden and Russian intelligence reflects “the current thinking” of the U.S. intelligence community. But U.S. officials do not have evidence that Snowden has actually shared NSA documents with the Russians, said the official, who did not provide any further details about the nature of the alleged contacts. A congressional staffer familiar with the matter said the committee and the intelligence community have “high confidence” in the reports of continuous contacts and that “you don’t have high confidence based on a single [intelligence] report.”

House Intelligence Chair Rep. Devin Nunes said in a statement Thursday the newly declassified report shows Snowden’s “reckless disregard” for U.S. national security, adding, “I look forward to the day when he returns to the United States to face justice.”

California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s ranking minority member, added: “Snowden and his defenders claim that he is a whistleblower, but he isn’t, as the committee’s review shows.”

The House report fleshes out a three-page executive summary that was released in September and was approved on a bipartisan basis by all members of the intelligence committee. That summary — denounced as “aggressively dishonest” by one of the journalists who received documents from Snowden — labeled him a “serial exaggerator and fabricator” as well as a disgruntled employee who did “tremendous damage to national security” by disclosing classified material about U.S. surveillance practices. (The summary did not include the allegation about Snowden’s contacts with Russian intelligence, which was declassified by the U.S. intelligence community only this week.)

After the release of the executive summary, the committee asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to declassify the panel’s full report (much of which is based on secret U.S. intelligence reports and interviews with officials at the National Security Agency and other U.S. agencies). Many key sections of the document remain classified and blacked out — including 20 specific examples of damage that U.S. officials believe was caused by Snowden’s disclosures. Also still classified are estimates about the cost to the U.S. government — believed to be in the billions of dollars — to rebuild and repair U.S. signals intelligence systems capabilities as a result of his disclosures.

Still, the newly declassified version cites a wealth of previously undisclosed internal emails, memos and interviews to draw a highly unflattering portrait of Snowden as an intelligence community misfit driven as much by personal grievances as by his publicly stated concerns about invasions of U.S. privacy.

It also reveals a glaring internal screwup by U.S. intelligence officials that allowed documented concerns about Snowden’s conduct by the CIA to go undetected when he landed a job as an NSA contractor.

Among the highlights:

— Snowden had a troubled work history within the U.S. intelligence community. He’d raised multiple complaints about his treatment that had nothing to do with U.S. surveillance practices. Less than three months after obtaining his first job with the CIA as a telecommunications information system officer (TISO) in 2006, he sent an email to the agency’s inspector general complaining that he was being “unfairly targeted” by his supervisor because he had raised concerns about “morale and retention issues” including the pay of TISOs compared with contractors doing similar work. Snowden, then 23, had surveyed other TISOs in his office and then written up his findings, sending them directly to the CIA’s deputy director for support, one of the 10 most senior executives in the agency. What prompted Snowden to complain to the inspector general, according to the report, was that his supervisors — after learning that he had gone over their heads — had pulled him into their offices for unscheduled “counseling,” during which, he asserted to the IG, they were “extremely hostile” and “seemed to believe I have trouble bonding with my classmates.” Snowden asked the IG to help protect him from “reprisal for speaking truth to power.” Notably, the report said, this was the only record of Snowden contacting the inspector general during his tenure at the CIA.

— Snowden later landed a CIA TISO post overseas — in Geneva, it has been publicly reported, although the city is blacked out in the report — despite the concerns of his previous supervisor, recorded in a Sept. 8, 2008, internal memo, that Snowden “often does not positively respond to advice from more senior officers … does not recognize the chain of command, often demonstrates a lack of maturity, and does not appear to be embracing the CIA culture.” Snowden later modified the software for his performance review “by manipulating the font,” the report says. (Snowden has said that while writing his annual self-evaluation he discovered flaws in the software of the CIA’s personnel Web applications that would make them vulnerable to hacking. With his supervisor’s approval, he asserted, he wrote some code and text in his personnel evaluation, but a more senior manager grew furious and wrote a critical comment in his personnel file.)

His behavior caused him to be recalled for “professional consultations” with the chief of all CIA technical officers in Europe, according to the committee report. His supervisor called him in for six counseling sessions between October 2007 and April 2008. When he flew home to Washington with his girlfriend in September 2008 for medical appointments — “disobeying orders,” the report says — his supervisors recommended that he not return to his position. Although Snowden has since asserted that he had ethical qualms about working for the CIA in Geneva — the Oliver Stone movie “Snowden” depicts him recoiling at being asked to blackmail a potential Pakistani asset over sexual misconduct — the report says records of Snowden’s multiple counseling sessions show no evidence he ever raised such issues at the time.

— When Snowden applied for a new position with an NSA contractor (Perot Systems, later purchased by Dell) in March 2009, NSA Security checked with an intelligence community-wide database known as “Scattered Castles” to verify his security clearance and, seeing no red flags, approved his hiring on April 7 of that year. This happened because CIA Security had yet to update Scattered Castles with the issues raised about Snowden’s employment in Geneva. Thirteen days later, on April 20, the CIA did, entering negative information about Snowden that was unknown to NSA and was apparently never detected. “Because NSA had checked the database three weeks earlier, NSA Security did not learn of the (blacked out) in his record at that time,” the report states. In the fall of 2010, a government contractor, U.S. Information Services, did a periodic background investigation of Snowden and cleared him in a report that never verified his CIA employment or checked with any of his supervisors. Nor did it request any character references beyond the two Snowden had provided: his mother and his girlfriend.

— In early 2012, Snowden took a new position with Dell as a systems administrator at the NSA’s Hawaii Cryptologic Center. Some co-workers recall him expressing strong political opinions, complaining about bills in Congress that he believed would be harmful to online privacy and — according to one co-worker’s account — indicating sympathy for China. (He claimed that, based on his meeting with Chinese hackers at a conference, “the United States caused problems for China but China never caused problems for the United States,” the report states, citing a committee interview with a co-worker.) He soon got into an email dispute with his supervisor over an issue that is blacked out in the report. But, much like he did at the CIA, Snowden went outside channels, according to the committee: He copied a deputy head of NSA’s technical services directorate in one of his replies during which he accused one of his middle managers of “evasion and finger-pointing.” This earned him a rebuke from an NSA civilian employee in Washington who, on June 22, 2012, wrote him in an email that his response was “totally UNACCEPTABLE” because “under no circumstances will any contractor call out or point fingers at any government manager whether you agree with their handling of an issue or not.”

— Snowden has publicly claimed that his “breaking point” for disclosing classified documents was Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s March 13, 2013, testimony before Congress in which he (falsely) denied that the NSA collected data on Americans. But the report states that Snowden began his mass downloading of documents from NSA networks on July 12, 2012, barely three weeks after his rebuke from the NSA official. (Snowden has asserted that, while he had already begun his downloading and had reached out to journalist Glenn Greenwald in December 2012, he didn’t actually disclose any documents until after Clapper’s testimony.) He used blunt “scraping” tools to download the material and used his systems administrator privileges to search across other NSA employees personal network drives and copy what he found, the report states. He also asked several of his unwitting co-workers for their security credentials so he could obtain information he could not access, causing at least one NSA co-worker to lose his security clearance and resign. Snowden’s searches “quickly expanded beyond surveillance programs” and included searches for “human resource files” and files relating to promotion and hiring decisions, as well as the personal network drives of individuals belonging to individuals involved in the hiring decision for a job for which Snowden had applied, the report states.