The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence urged President Barack Obama on Thursday not to pardon Edward Snowden, concluding in an unclassified summary of a two-year investigation that the former NSA contractor was “not a whistleblower” — echoing what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a press briefing earlier in the week.
“Edward Snowden is no hero — he’s a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country. He put our service members and the American people at risk after perceived slights by his superiors,” said Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., in a statement about the report on Snowden’s disclosure of documents on NSA worldwide surveillance programs.
The entire panel — Democrats and Republicans alike — signed a letter sent directly to the president, asserting that Snowden is “not a patriot.” The unclassified summary of the report, disclosed alongside the letter, is just three pages long; the classified version is 36 pages with 230 footnotes.
The summary was released one day before the premiere of Oliver Stone’s movie about the NSA whistleblower.
The committee shared five conclusions, which it says were formed from speaking with “key individuals with knowledge of Snowden’s background and actions.” While the report ostensibly reveals some new information, several of its claims have been quickly challenged as misleading, dishonest, or opinion.
Among what is likely to be the report’s more controversial claims is the assertion that Snowden took some 1.5 million documents. The committee determined that his disclosures led to the loss of intelligence “that had saved American lives” and cost the country billions of dollars, but it doesn’t cite evidence of specific damages in the unclassified summary.
The majority of the documents, the authors also argue, “have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests.”
Ben Wizner, Edward Snowden’s lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, argues the committee’s calculation of how many documents Snowden took is actually a vast overestimate, judging from how many documents they think he may have had access to. “The assertion that he took 1.5 million documents is nonsensical,” he told The Intercept during a phone interview.
Moreover, to claim that the documents he did disclose aren’t “mostly about surveillance is bad faith on top of bad faith,” he said.
The committee also asserts that Snowden may not have been familiar with all the privacy protections baked into the intelligence collection programs, because he failed a test about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a program up for reauthorization in 2017.
The report does not cite which parts of the test Snowden got wrong.
The report also fails to acknowledge the substantial changes that have taken place as a result of Snowden’s disclosures, including a global debate about domestic and foreign surveillance, the death of Section 215 bulk collection, which was ruled illegal, and increased transparency requirements for the entire intelligence community.
The report also attempts to attack Snowden’s personal credibility. According to the investigation, Snowden in mid-2012 had a “fiery email argument” with a supervisor, for which he was reprimanded. Then, two weeks later — eight months before the director of national intelligence testified falsely that the NSA does not collect information on Americans — he started downloading documents.
However, Snowden tweeted that the reason he downloaded documents was for a program called HEARTBEAT — which appears in Stone’s Snowden film, though hasn’t been reported on widely before. Snowden concluded that was where the figure of 1.5 million documents came from — though that program was authorized by management, he wrote in a tweet.
The committee cites a member of the Russian parliament who claimed that Snowden shared intelligence with the Kremlin, although that official actually prefaced his statement with “I think” — something Snowden noted on Twitter following the report’s release.
Snowden has maintained his assertion that he can no longer access any of the files he took.
While cautioning that he wasn’t representing the official position of the government, Chris Inglis, former deputy director of the NSA, said that it “doesn’t seem to me that a destination of China or Russia would be preferred. … I don’t think that he was in the employ of the Chinese or the Russians.”
The committee also concluded that Snowden failed to raise his concerns internally before leaking the information, and thus could not claim whistleblower protections. The committee revealed that it regularly receives complaints from contractors under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998.
However, the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Bob Litt, said himself last November that those protections are “complicated”, and that “the government doesn’t straight out have the authority to say whether that person can be fired.”
According to the investigation, Snowden exaggerated his experience and his level of access to classified files — and instead was able to access the information he took through his coworkers’ credentials and systems.
The report appears designed to directly refute some plot points in Stone’s movie, such as Snowden leaving the army after breaking his legs. Snowden “washed out,” the authors wrote, due to shin splits.
The committee notes he never obtained a high school degree, and claims he lied about being a “senior advisor” at the CIA while actually working as a lower computer technician. The authors of the report accuse him of “stealing the answers” to a test employees take before entering the NSA.
Snowden began to directly respond to the report’s personal characterizations of him as a “serial exaggerator and fabricator” on Twitter.
Army held me for weeks in a special unit for convalescence before separation. I left on crutches. They don't do that for "shin splints."
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 15, 2016
It’s unclear whether every member of the committee agreed with all of the report’s conclusions. “I can’t comment on discussions that take place in a classified setting,” Jack Langer, Chairman Nunes’s press secretary, wrote in an email.
The investigation’s conclusion, which coincided closely with the release of Oliver Stone’s new film, frustrated Snowden’s attorney, Wizner. In the movie, Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, is portrayed as a patriotic American who grew disillusioned from his years working within the intelligence community.
“You wonder why Americans are cynical about the government,” Wizner said. “Who knew the [intelligence community] was so afraid of Joseph Gordon Levitt.”