U.S. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, speaks during a conference at the Ronald Reagan Building, in October. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
NSA officials are bracing for more surveillance disclosures from the documents taken by former contractor Edward Snowden — and they want to get out in front of the story.
In a recent speech, NSA Director Keith Alexander said Snowden may have taken as many as 200,000 NSA documents with him when he left his post in Hawaii. If so, the vast majority of them have yet to be released.
Intelligence officials tell NPR they believe Snowden’s secrets fall into four categories:
Information on NSA capabilities, such as how it is able to collect communications data through its electronic surveillance of telephone records and online information transfers;
NSA intelligence reports on threats, foreign leaders and other topics, assembled on the basis of its collection of signals intelligence — SIGINT — i.e., electronic intercepts;
Information on NSA partnerships, such as those made with private U.S. tech companies and foreign intelligence services;
Details of SIGINT “requirements” levied against the NSA by other U.S. government agencies, meaning the specific intelligence requests made to the NSA by the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, or the FBI.
Most of the disclosures so far have pertained to NSA capabilities and NSA partnerships. Officials are most concerned about the fourth category of secrets — the “requirements” disclosures.
NSA officials say the agency is now dealing with about 36,000 pages of such requirements from various government agencies, all of them specifying intelligence targets about some government agency that wants more information.
Disclosure of these requests could reveal where there are gaps in U.S. intelligence and therefore highlight some U.S. vulnerabilities. NSA officials say few, if any, of the disclosures so far fall into this category.
With respect to other information held by Snowden and his allies but not yet publicized, the NSA is now considering a proactive release of some of the less sensitive material, to better manage the debate over its surveillance program.
“We’re working on how do we do that,” says Richard Ledgett, the NSA official in charge of the agency’s response to the Snowden disclosures.
For a proactive release not to cause problems, Ledgett says, the NSA would first have to consider which secrets cannot be divulged without harming national security.