U.S. officials might not know for years whether former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden divulged war plans to China and Russia, intelligence experts say.
Snowden has denied passing on U.S. secrets to either country and last month said American officials would “notice the changes” if rivals had been given his document trove.
“We may see some things immediately that might indicate that they have things, but it will create a great deal of uncertainty for years,” said Mark Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence and Security Academy and former CIA assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production.
U.S. officials say Snowden’s leaks to the press about NSA surveillance have already begun to influence the behavior of adversaries, particularly terrorists looking to escape detection when building bombs.
American officials have also noticed some intelligence sources drying up.
But the fallout from Snowden’s leaks could be far wider. Only 2 percent of the documents that Snowden took dealt with NSA surveillance, officials say. The rest covered military capabilities and plans — documents of particular interest to Russia, the country now harboring Snowden, and China, his first destination after leaving the United States.
The stolen material could include everything from defense budget data to information about weapons capabilities to documents about covert actions, former intelligence officials say.
“This includes anything that was being moved out over their communications systems, not just about the collection of intelligence,” said Gary Berntsen, a former CIA official from 1982-2005.
“We have military forces positioned around the world, they push plans back and forth, assessments, deployment information — the whole thing,” he said.
One clue that Russia or China is privy to the war plans could be adjustments to the way they exercise and train, according to Lowenthal.
“If you notice changes in someone’s exercises, dramatic changes that seem different to you that’s not evolutionary, you would have to think, ‘Why are they doing this? Do they have their hands on war plans; have they read the plans?’ ”
And although the U.S. closely tracks how foreign countries train and exercise, it would take time for rivals to change their methods.
“It depends on how fast they can get their act together. Militaries don’t exactly turn on a dime,” Lowenthal said. “It’s not proof positive, but it would be a good indicator.”
Another clue would be changes in military purchases clearly aimed at thwarting U.S. defenses and weapons. That could take “years and years” to notice, Lowenthal said, since militaries have to buy the equipment, build it, and test it.
The changes could also become apparent on the battlefield.
“It might encourage those countries to act against you, if they know you have limited ability to respond in certain areas,” Berntsen said.
Berntsen said the U.S. could also learn more about Snowden’s actions if defectors come forward, or if spies embedded in foreign governments get wind of the documents.
U.S. officials say they do not know exactly what Snowden took with him, when he fled the country and began his global crusade against Internet surveillance.
Intelligence officials are operating under the assumption that Snowden stole everything he accessed as a contractor and that Russia and China have every page. With that in mind, officials are undergoing a wholesale update of military operations around the world.
“We have to assume … all of data he had is available to the Russians. I mean, they can break any type of code,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on NBC on Feb. 12. “I think we have to assume the Chinese have it all, too.”
The Defense Department has created a task force, along with other government agencies, to look at everything officials believe was taken by Snowden, and to simulate what that information could be used for, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told lawmakers earlier this month.
The task force’s work would take about two years, Dempsey said.
Some former intelligence officials say it’s possible the U.S. will never know whether Snowden spilled secrets.
“It’s impossible to prove a negative. They just will never know, even if Snowden returns and confesses. He doesn’t know himself what they could have, and what access they’ve had to his computers,” said Dan Gabriel, a former CIA official.
But others argue the proof that Snowden is working with the Russians or Chinese is that most of the files he stole had nothing to do with the NSA.
“He stole a lot of material that had nothing whatsoever with these programs that he’s opposed to,” Lowenthal said.
Gabriel said it’s hard to believe Russia wasn’t somehow behind Snowden’s intelligence theft, given how it has caused a public relations nightmare for the U.S..
“The nation’s dirty laundry is being displayed in an international forum. The political value rivals any covert action program,” he said.