(Updates with date for Obama announcement in sixth paragraph.)
Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon concluded that Edward Snowden committed the biggest theft of U.S. secrets in history, downloading about 1.7 million intelligence files, including information that could put personnel in jeopardy, according to lawmakers.
The Defense Department found that Snowden’s disclosures last year could “gravely impact” national security and that much of what he took is related to current military operations, Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in a statement yesterday on the findings.
“This report confirms my greatest fears -– Snowden’s real acts of betrayal place America’s military men and women at greater risk,” said Rogers, a Michigan Republican. “Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.”
The classified Pentagon report marked the first official assessment to emerge of how much data Snowden took and the risk to military and intelligence personnel. It came to light the same day President Barack Obama met with lawmakers to discuss changes to the National Security Agency spying programs revealed by Snowden last year.
Obama is responding to a domestic and international backlash over revelations the NSA spied on leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hacked into fiber-optic cables to get data from Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., and searched through Americans’ communications without warrants. Most of the spying was exposed by Snowden, who has been charged with espionage and theft and is in Russia under temporary asylum.
Obama plans to announce his intentions Jan. 17, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity because the schedule hasn’t been made public. The restrictions he’ll propose will include tighter rules for spying on foreign leaders, according to another official. The president has indicated he’ll also seek a privacy advocate on the secret court that oversees the NSA programs.
A proposal from a White House advisory panel last month called for having U.S. telecommunications companies, rather than the NSA, hold bulk phone records for spy programs. That may require Verizon Communications Inc. and other U.S. carriers to spend as much as $60 million a year and expose them to the risk of lawsuits, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the intelligence committee.
Requiring the phone companies keep the records “presents a huge civil situation,” Feinstein said yesterday after she and 15 other lawmakers met with Obama on NSA surveillance. “Would every detective or every attorney want to get the records?”
In the meeting, Obama discussed options for phone records without indicating what he supports, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. The president told lawmakers he plans to announce his decisions at the end of next week, Grassley said.
Representatives of technology companies are scheduled to meet with White House staff today. Obama met last month with a group of technology executives including Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! Inc. and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook Inc.
The Defense Department report wasn’t released to the public and was described in the statement by Rogers and Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel. An intelligence community review of what Snowden has is still under way, according to a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity to discuss the classified assessment.
The two lawmakers said that while most of the media reports stemming from Snowden’s disclosures have focused on foreign intelligence gathering, the bulk of the material he took pertained to Defense Department operations.
American officials are concerned that the material Snowden is suspected of downloading, while it hasn’t been made public yet, could be used to help identify U.S. intelligence agents even if they’re not named in the material he took.
“As a result of these disclosures, terrorists and their support networks, now have a better understanding of our collection methods and, make no mistake about it, they are taking countermeasures,” said Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, faulted U.S. officials’ claims.
“There is not a shred of evidence that any adversary has seen any documents other than those that have been published by journalists who had access to this material,” Wizner said in an e-mailed statement.
Snowden and others who leak government secrets shouldn’t be considered heroic whistle-blowers, FBI Director James Comey said yesterday.
“When you are talking about revealing the ways in which we track terrorists or the identities and locations of agents, I struggle to understand how you can apply hero whistle-blowing label to that kind of information,” Comey said.
Comey didn’t elaborate on Snowden’s disclosures because the contractor has been charged with a crime. FBI spokesman Michael Kortan said that the director was expressing a “broader concern” about the dangers associated with such leaks. Kortan declined to elaborate.
Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that “the Pentagon’s findings confirm what we already know: that Mr. Snowden was no whistle-blower, but a spy and a traitor. He put his personal politics and ambitions over the safety and well-being of his fellow citizens.”
With its proposal, the administration is seeking to rein in U.S. surveillance without sacrificing its ability to use electronic intelligence gathering to fight terrorism.
Privacy advocates including representatives from the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation met yesterday with White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and other administration lawyers to discuss possible changes to the NSA surveillance programs, according to a participant who asked for anonymity to discuss the closed-door event.
Ruemmler raised the point that the bulk records collection program helped in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, according to the participant. Privacy advocates told Ruemmler that the one example wasn’t enough to justify a sweeping record- collection program, the participant said.
Kevin Bankston, another meeting participant, said “it’s clear that the White House is in the midst of serious deliberations about changes that should be made to the NSA programs going forward and we appreciate the opportunity to share our perspectives.”
Bankston, policy director for the Washington-based Open Technology Institute, said the privacy community is united in the position that the collection of bulk records must end and that requiring the phone companies or a third party to retain them isn’t acceptable.
--With assistance from Margaret Talev in Washington. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Elizabeth Wasserman