WASHINGTON – The heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees suggested Sunday that Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, may have been working for Russian spy services while he was employed at an agency facility in Hawaii last year and before he disclosed hundreds of thousands of classified government documents.
The lawmakers, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., offered no specific evidence that Snowden cooperated with Moscow. So far, there has been no public indication that the FBI’s investigation into Snowden’s actions, bolstered by separate “damage assessment” investigations at the NSA and the Pentagon, has uncovered evidence that Snowden received help from a foreign intelligence service.
But Rogers, in particular, referred to a recent classified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency that he has described in other interviews as concluding that Snowden stole about 1.7 million intelligence files that concern vital operations of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. He said that it would cost billions of dollars to change operations because of the security breaches.
The defense intelligence report remains classified, though some members of Congress have been briefed on it.
“I believe there are questions to be answered there,” Rogers said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I don’t think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB,” he said, referring to the Federal Security Service, the Russian state security organization that succeeded the KGB.
Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who advises Snowden, said in a telephone interview Sunday that the accusation that Snowden had been recruited by Russian spy services before he left Hawaii was “not only false, it is silly.”
Wizner also criticized Rogers’ description of the defense agency report as “exaggerated national security claims.”
A senior official with access to the intelligence on Snowden said that U.S. suspicions had been raised in part because of changes that have taken place in information that Snowden is believed to have stored since he left the United States. Investigators believe that data is being stored by an Internet cloud service, though it is unclear who has access to it. The United States is concerned that Russian agents may have access to the data while Snowden is in the country under temporary asylum, or in exchange for his asylum.
“Something more was going on there, and because of the nature of the information that was stolen,” Rogers said in a separate appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” adding that it had “nothing to do with Americans’ privacy, a lot to do with our operations overseas.”
Feinstein, when asked by David Gregory, the host of “Meet the Press,” whether she agreed with Rogers that Snowden may have had help from the Russians, was more tentative: “He may well have. We don’t know at this stage.”
Both lawmakers said their committees would continue to pursue these suspicions.
Snowden has been living in Russia since June. In an interview with the New York Times last October, Snowden said he did not take any secret NSA documents with him to Russia when he fled there, ensuring that Russian intelligence officials could not get access to them.
Also Sunday, Feinstein and Rogers expressed concerns about a key element of President Obama’s attempt to overhaul NSA surveillance operations.
Obama, under pressure to calm the controversy over government spying, said Friday he wants bulk phone data stored outside the government to reduce the risk that the records will be abused. That could mean finding a way for phone companies to store the records, though some companies have balked at the idea, or it could mean creating a third-party entity to hold the records. The president said he will require a special judge’s advance approval before intelligence agencies can examine someone’s data and will force analysts to keep their searches closer to suspected terrorists or organizations.
“And I think that’s a very difficult thing,” Feinstein said, “because the whole purpose of this program is to provide instantaneous information to be able to disrupt any plot that may be taking place.”
Rogers said Obama had intensified a sense of uncertainty about the country’s ability to root out terrorist threats. Obama didn’t say who should have control of Americans’ data; he directed the attorney general and director of national intelligence to find a solution within 60 days.
“We really did need a decision on Friday,” Rogers said, “and what we got was lots of uncertainty.”
The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.