NSA: Fallout From Snowden Leaks Isn't Over, But Info Is Getting Old

Mar 16, 2016
Originally published on March 17, 2016 12:44 pm

The fallout from Edward Snowden's 2013 spying revelations is not over yet, according to Richard Ledgett, who ran the National Security Agency's investigation into Snowden's leaks.

It's been nearly three years since Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, told the world about the bulk collection of American phone records.

But in an interview at NSA headquarters, Ledgett, the agency's deputy director, tells NPR that more classified documents about the internal workings of the government surveillance apparatus may yet come to light.

"There are still some other shoes to drop, I think," says Ledgett. "There are things that'll probably be released that are designed to cause friction between the United States and other countries."

Richard Ledgett, the NSA's deputy director, shown here at a Feb. 25 House Intelligence Committee hearing, tells NPR that fallout continues from Edward Snowden's leaks.
Andrew Harnik / AP

The good news — from the NSA's point of view — is these documents are getting old. Technology is changing fast, Ledgett says, and the NSA has adapted.

"The date of Mr. Snowden's — the information cut-off date for when he stole that information and disclosed it — was June, or May of 2013," he says. "And so things have changed a lot between now and then. The amount that matters from a technical capabilities sense has decreased over that time."

The less-good news is that since 2013, the NSA has watched as about 1,000 of its intelligence targets have "taken steps to remove themselves from our visibility," Ledgett says.

Pressed for an example, Ledgett offers this: "There was a terrorist group that was actually engaged in operational planning directly against the United States and western Europe, that changed the way they communicated because of those disclosures. And they said they were going to do it, and they did it, and we lost track of them."

Ledgett says this happened about 18 months ago. He declined to disclose which European country.

The debate continues over whether Snowden is a traitor or a whistleblower hero. But there's no denying that he shifted the debate over what the U.S. government should be allowed to do in the name of protecting national security.

The most significant signpost so far of that shift is the USA Freedom Act. Congress passed it last year to replace the post-Sept. 11 USA Patriot Act, and to curb sweeping surveillance authorities. It's been phased in gradually and only took full effect at the NSA on Feb. 29.

"Personally, I like the new program," says Ledgett. Under the new law, it is phone companies — not the NSA — that store the bulk phone records of Americans. The agency must now get a court order to see them.

Ledgett acknowledges the new system costs a little more, and takes a little longer. But kinks are being worked out, he says, and the NSA is still able to collect the intelligence it needs.

The changes mandated under the Freedom Act come as the NSA embarks on its own internal changes.

Last month, the agency embarked on a sweeping reorganization, dubbed "NSA 21." Ledgett says it will make the agency more nimble by merging cyber-offense and defense teams that used to be separate.

"It's an agility thing, being more agile about how we prioritize, how we pivot from one topic to another," he says. "Because we need to be able to react to events, and ideally, from an intelligence point of view, to anticipate those events."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly three years ago, Edward Snowden told the world how the National Security Agency tracked information about Americans' phone calls. Today, the fallout from his revelations continues. That's according to the man who ran the agency's investigation into Snowden, Deputy Director Richard Ledgett. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly went to NSA headquarters to speak with him.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: You have to clear three checkpoints to enter the NSA's hulking headquarters in Maryland, and once you're deep inside, speaking the name Edward Snowden out loud feels risky. It's half-tempting to go with he who must not be named, the way "Harry Potter" wizards avoid saying Voldemort. What Snowden did rocketed the secretive spy agency onto front pages around the world, and it's not over yet, says Richard Ledgett.

RICHARD LEDGETT: There are still some other shoes to drop, I think. There are things that will probably be released that are designed to cause friction between the United States and other countries.

KELLY: The good news from the NSA's point of view is these documents are getting old, and technology is changing fast.

LEDGETT: The date of Mr. Snowden's information cutoff date for when he stole that information and disclosed it was June of - or May of 2013. And so things have changed a lot between now and then. The amount that matters from a technical capability sense has decreased over that time.

KELLY: The less-good news, says Ledgett, is that since 2013, the NSA has watched as about a thousand of its intelligence targets have, quote, "taken steps to remove themselves from our visibility." Pressed for an example, Ledgett offers this.

LEDGETT: There was a terrorist group that was actually engaged in operational planning directed against the United States and Western Europe that changed the way they communicated, and - because of those disclosures. And they said they were going to do it, and they did it. And we lost track of them.

KELLY: Ledgett says this happened a year and a half ago. He would not say which European country. Whether you view Snowden as a traitor or a whistleblower hero, there's no denying he shifted the debate over what the government should be allowed to do in the name of national security. The most significant signpost so far of that shift is legislation that Congress passed last year to replace the post-9/11 Patriot Act. The USA Freedom Act only took full effect at the NSA two weeks ago.

LEDGETT: Personally, I like the new program.

KELLY: The new program means phone companies, not the NSA, hold bulk phone records. The agency now has to get a court order to see them. Ledgett acknowledges it costs a little more, and it takes a little longer.

LEDGETT: I think the speed thing is working itself out. Anytime you have a new process, it takes longer the first few times you do it, and you try - you discover things. And so we've been speeding that up as time goes on.

KELLY: So you wouldn't go back to the way things were under the Patriot Act?

LEDGETT: I would not.

KELLY: You would not.

LEDGETT: No.

KELLY: Last month, the agency embarked on a sweeping reorganization dubbed NSA21. Richard Ledgett says it will make the agency more nimble by merging cyber offense and defense teams that used to be separate. Combined with the Freedom Act, it means the colossal spying apparatus known as the National Security Agency is in the throes of great change. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.