The Topline: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers that the leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have made the country last safe.
Clapper’s assessment came at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual global threats hearing, where the intelligence director faced an audience of lawmakers who are both among the NSA's biggest defenders and critics.
“As a consequence, the nation is less safe and its people less secure,” Clapper said. “We’re beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of our adversaries.”
Clapper called on Snowden and his “accomplices” to return all of the remaining classified documents that Snowden had taken last year.
But Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan also faced push-back from critics of the NSA’s surveillance programs, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Matrin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
Wyden said that “years of misleading and deceptive statements” did not protect sources and methods but instead hid “bad policy choices and violations of the liberties of the American people.”
Wyden pressed Clapper and Brennan over searches on U.S. soil, receiving assurances he would get responses in writing but no real answers to his questions.
Udall and Heinrich went after Brennan over the CIA’s resistance to publicly releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Bush-era interrogation techniques.
Heinrich accused Brennan of making statements “meant to intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight,” while Udall and Brennan got into a heated exchange over Brennan’s response to the committee’s findings.
Udall focused on an internal CIA review of the interrogation programs, asking whether it contradicted Brennan’s criticisms of the Intelligence panel’s report.
“I'd respectfully like to say that I don't think this is the proper format for that discussion, because our responses to your report were in classified form,” Brennan said.
“Let me make sure I understand. Are you saying that the CIA officers who were asked to produce this internal review got it wrong? Just like you've said the committee got it wrong?” Udall responded.
“Senator, as you well know, I didn't say that the committee got it wrong,” Brennan shot back. “I said there were things in that report that I disagreed with, there were things in that report that I agreed with. And I look forward to working with the committee on the next steps in that report.”
Syria becoming ‘huge magnet’ for terrorists: The intelligence community’s assessment of the situation in Syria warned that foreign terrorists are finding the country a “huge magnet” amid the nearly three-year civil war.
Clapper warned that al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria like the al-Nusra Front pose a threat to the West and have aspirations to launch attacks on U.S. soil.
Clapper said that Syria risked becoming a new FATA — referring to Federally Administered Tribal Areas — in Pakistan where core al Qaeda operates from.
Clapper said that of the 75,000 to 110,000 opposition fighters in Syria, 26,000 are considered “extremists” and 7,000 have come from foreign countries across the Middle East and Europe.
The intelligence assessment also included a finding on Syria that rankled the State Department, stating that the chemical weapons deal struck by President Obama and Russia “adds legitimacy” to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Nuclear forces a 'national security priority': Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel considers the health of the nuclear enterprise a “top national security priority,” according to Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby.
On Wednesday, Hagel hosted his first of what is expected to be a series of meetings on the health of the nuclear force, prompted by two ongoing investigations that revealed drug use and cheating on qualification tests among its forces.
At least 34 airmen are currently suspended, after being found to have cheated or known about the cheating. The entire force is being retested.
Meanwhile, defense officials have reached a general consensus that there are most likely systemic issues with personnel growth and development inside the nuclear force, Kirby said.
“I think there was a general recognition that yes, there are systemic issues, and yes, we need to start trying to solve them,” Kirby said.
Sikh service members seek religious accommodation: Pentagon officials defended the department’s new policy accommodating religious practices among armed forces during an Armed Services hearing on Wednesday.
The new policy allows for service members to wear religious articles of faith unless it interferes with mission accomplishment, safety, or unit cohesion.
Sikhs who attended the hearing said the policy does not go far enough and that service members are still subject to permission from their commander, resulting in a "presumptive ban" they must overcome each time they change assignments.
“Each unit of assignment has a different responsibility,” said Virginia S. Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defense, at an Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. “If it impacts safety, health [or] the unit, they may deny the accommodation.”
In Case You Missed It:
— Clapper: Snowden ‘accomplices should return docs
— Intel community: Obama’s Syria deal good for Assad
— Karzai ‘welcomed’ Obama speech comments
— After veto threat, Senators back off on Iran
— Dems, Brennan clash over torture report
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