Pentagon Report That Supposedly Shows How Much Harm Snowden Caused... Actually Shows No Such Thing

from the staggeringly-misleading dept

For a few months now, the NSA's defenders -- primarily Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and House Intelligence Committee boss Rep. Mike Rogers -- have been waving around a "classified" report from the Pentagon, concerning how much "damage" Snowden's leaks have caused. Rogers had put out a press release about the report as if it was proof of how much harm was caused -- and based on that release, people quickly realized that the claims of harm were based on two very questionable assumptions
  1. That everything Snowden "touched" while employed at the NSA, he took with him and gave to reporters -- amounting to something like 1.7 million documents.
  2. That all of those files are in the hands of America's adversaries
As many people have highlighted -- both of those claims are extremely questionable. Glenn Greenwald and Ewan Macaskill have both admitted publicly that Snowden only gave them around 60,000 documents.

Either way, the Guardian has a new report with a redacted version of the Pentagon's report, obtained via a FOIA request by FOIA champion Jason Leopold. Leopold wrote a summary of the report, noting that the Pentagon claims "the scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering."

However, Julian Sanchez quickly pointed out that the Pentagon is playing word games. It's saying (as noted in our assumptions) that the scope of what Snowden touched is staggering, not the actual damage. As Sanchez points out:
The first thing to note is that the Pentagon report does not concern the putative harm of disclosures about the National Security Agency programs that have been the focus of almost all Snowden-inspired stories published to date. Rather, the Defense Intelligence Agency's damage assessment deals only with the potential impact of "non-NSA Defense material" that the government believes Snowden may have obtained. Any harm resulting from the disclosure of NSA-related material – in other words, almost everything actually made public thus far – is not included in this assessment.

In fact, the unredacted portions of the report don't discuss published material at all. Instead, the Pentagon was assessing the significance of the information "compromised" by Snowden – all the documents they believe he copied, whether or not they ever see the light of day.
As Sanchez notes, it absolutely makes sense for the US government to assess the possible damage from other possible leaks based on what Snowden has touched, but it's wholly irresponsible for politicians and the press to misrepresent the report as looking at the actual harm caused by the leaks to date. Because that's not what the report says at all.

In summary:
In short: the Pentagon damage report concludes that the "staggering" cache of documents that Snowden might have taken (most of which he probably didn't) could potentially cause grave harm if disclosed to a foreign power (which, as far as we know, they haven't been), and assumed that only genuinely super-sensitive information gets classified (which top intelligence officials concede isn't true).
And yet, Snowden's critics are totally misrepresenting the report to say things it clearly does not say.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 23rd, 2014 @ 7:51am

    The sky is falling, The sky is falling.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Baron von Robber, May 23rd, 2014 @ 7:59am

    The Pentagon "Boogeyman" Report more like.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    David, May 23rd, 2014 @ 8:12am

    Increasingly off-topic:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Michael, May 23rd, 2014 @ 8:33am

    So what they have is a report that tells them how f***ed they may be if the whistleblower that they are trying to discredit and ultimately jail or kill decides that the government he is trying to help has gone completely over the edge and is not worth saving.

    Hmm...they may want to rethink their 'kill the messenger' plan.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 23rd, 2014 @ 8:39am

    Guilty until proven innocent

    This is just another fine example of the U.S. government assuming someone is guilty without any real proof.

    "He might have taken these, and he might have given them to our enemy, but... well... there's no evidence that any of that occurred."

    I see that they are increasingly treating the entire nation like this.

    We're assumed to be guilty of terrorism the minute we walk into an airport. We're assumed to be guilty the minute some copyright maximalist accuses us of infringement. We're assumed to be guilty if we so much as encrypt our communications, or turn on our cell phones.

    It can't go on like this - something is going to crack.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 23rd, 2014 @ 8:42am

    If Ed Snowden could touch all those files, who else and working for which foreign agencies did the same?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Michael, May 23rd, 2014 @ 8:49am


    The NSA would probably have better security if they outsourced system development to an offshore company.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 23rd, 2014 @ 8:54am


    My thought exactly. In fact, it could be argued Snowden has helped to secure these files. By informing the US government how much access contractors have had to classified information.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Groaker (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 9:48am

    Just how much damage did Snowden do? As much as Robert Hansen, a high level FBI agent who spied for the USSR, and then Bella Russ for 22 years.

    George Bush who outed an entire section of the CIA in an attempt to cover up the drumming of our nation into a criminal war.

    Jonathan Pollard who reputedly gave hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents to Israel and other nations.

    Richard Miller, another FBI agent sold counterintelligence material to the USSR.

    And who knows how many more?

    Our government clearly loses more secrets through its own employees than it does through outside whistleblowers. It would seem that the whistleblowers are the last check on a government totally out of control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Robert, May 23rd, 2014 @ 10:31am

    Exposure of Criminal Acts

    How much damage did Edward Snowden do to the NSA, well, exactly what you would expect when the criminal actions of a criminal organisation are exposed.
    Of course the laughable public self denial of those criminal acts and those who carried and well as all of those who conspired to hide them, ten of thousands of them, is even more damaging and not just to the NSA but the whole USA government, corporate crime inc.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 10:42am

    I always hate arguments like this. They assume far too much.

    We know thing C happened (the leaked documents) so let's assume thing A (million+ documents stolen) and thing B (selling documents to our enemies), then we can claim thing D (Snowden is a traitor).

    If you ever find yourself thinking along these lines (taking one fact and 2 or more assumptions to come to a conclusion), stop. Back off from that idea and come at it from a different direction. Always bring more facts then assumptions to the argument, and the assumptions should be based exclusively on those facts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 23rd, 2014 @ 11:24am

    The sharp drop in the numbers of terrorists arrested and convicted post-Snowden should be evidence in itself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 12:06pm


    Evidence of something, perhaps, but what is it evidence of?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    soillodge (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 4:32pm

    Re: Re:

    Yes- that is a great point that too often gets glossed over. If security of these documents is so awful that a mid level contractor can access and copy them, and they STILL have no idea what Snowden took. How are they so certain the system has not be compromised in other ways? How do they know that other contractors are not using the system for their own purposes [cointelpro upgraded]. It looks to me that there only defense against this is fear tactics. A nefarious individual would work right through that nonsense.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    OrganizedThoughtCrime (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 9:42pm

    I would call that increasingly relevant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    OrganizedThoughtCrime (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 9:49pm


    Indeed, or who else took information and quietly sold it on. The only 'damages' caused by responsible journalism in these matters is the real damage caused to government's credibility, and the same government has only itself to blame for that.

    Only a criminal would cry foul when evidence of their criminal activity is brought to light, especially in the context of a gigantic, hyper-secretive government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    OrganizedThoughtCrime (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 9:55pm

    Re: Re:

    ^ A great example of asking the right question. I would add that evidence backing up the original statement would also be useful to that particular discussion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Private Fraser, May 23rd, 2014 @ 11:53pm

    It is annoying when someone has lots of private information on you that you don't want them to have - isn't it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    observer, May 24th, 2014 @ 4:16am


    Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Brian Dell, May 24th, 2014 @ 4:29am

    Greenwald said he got only 10000 docs

    "[Greenwald] told host Reinhold Beckmann that he and journalist Laura Poitras had obtained full sets of the documents during a trip to Hong Kong, with around 9,000 to 10,000 top secret documents in total."
    -Der Spiegel, July 19

    If Greenwald now says he was 60K, he is changing his tune to fit the story he wants to spin. Don't expect Masnick to point this out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Brian Dell, May 24th, 2014 @ 5:00am

    another problem with using Greenwald as a source

    Even if Greenwald got his story straight about how many docs he got from Snowden, which he hasn't given the way he jumps from 10K to 60K without explanation, how is he supposed to know how many docs the Russians or Wikileaks has? Because Wikileaks obviously has docs that it got from someone other than Greenwald, given Wikileaks latest move to reveal info that Greenwald would not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    OrganizedThoughtCrime (profile), May 24th, 2014 @ 8:39pm

    Re: Greenwald said he got only 10000 docs

    Just a guess, but the first thing that comes to my mind is the top secret distinction. For example, if I say one day that I have 60,000 bicycles, and another day say that I have 10,000 blue bicycles, those are not contradictory statements.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 27th, 2014 @ 2:09am

    For all the intelligence community claims, Snowden could be the Abominable Snowman or Spring-Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 28th, 2014 @ 4:27pm

    "And yet, Snowden's critics are totally misrepresenting the report to say things it clearly does not say."

    Simple truth is that if Snowden's critics did not totally misrepresent the facts, they would have nothing to say at all.

    Snowden For POTUS

    Elect someone you already know is honest for a change.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    Groaker (profile), May 29th, 2014 @ 5:38am

    I am not comfortable with such leaks. They are justified only because we have a government that has been demonstrated to lie, cover its ass, utilize power to silence (temporarily and permanently), to torture, to have secret law, secret courts, crimes against humanity, crimes against the peace, and other displays of tyranny. And to do so both secretly and in strutting arrogant displays.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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