Edward Snowden

Snowden 'a thief helped by Russia', says head of US House committee

Head of US intelligence committee says NSA leaker may have collaborated with Moscow before ending up in 'loving arms' of Putin

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 10:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 11:16pm

The chairman of the powerful US House Intelligence Committee has condemned former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden as a "thief" and claimed he may have had help from Russia.

"I believe there's a reason he ended up in the loving arms of an FSB agent in Moscow," said Republican Mike Rogers, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former head of the Russian security service. "I don't think that's a coincidence."

He said some of the things Snowden did were "beyond his technical capabilities" and that it appeared "he had some help and he stole things that had nothing to do with privacy".

Rogers, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, did not elaborate on when he thinks Russian officials and Snowden were first in contact. But he said his revelations may have done significant damage to the US military.

He said the majority of what Snowden took from government systems had nothing to do with Americans' privacy and was instead focused on military operations. That data may now have been obtained by other nations.

Meanwhile, in an interview on ABC's This Week, fellow Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he also thought Snowden was "cultivated by a foreign power".

Snowden has denied turning over any documents to the government in Russia, where he obtained a one-year asylum visa after flying there from Hong Kong in June. He has also denied giving classified material to China.

Rogers said organisations such as al-Qaeda and some nations had changed their communication protocols in response to Snowden's leaks and that the US would have to spend billions to rebuild its capabilities.

In a speech on Friday, President Barack Obama said he no longer wants the US government to collect and hold the phone records of millions of Americans and would like to narrow officials' access to the data.

[Snowden] had some help and he stole things that had nothing to do with privacy

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was heartened by the president's speech, particularly because he intends to continue to allow the collection of Americans' phone records - albeit with tighter controls and with the data in the hands of some outside entity.

Obama has instructed the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to come up with a plan to make good on his proposal. "The president very clearly said, 'We need this capability to keep people safe'," said Feinstein, adding that the majority of members on her committee would agree with that.

Some opponents of the NSA's collection of Americans' phone records were also heartened by Obama's speech.

"It showed he was listening to those of us across the political spectrum," said Senator Mark Udall on CBS's Face the Nation. "We are now in a position to keep faith with the constitution."

US House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers. Photo: Reuters

But privacy advocates said there were lingering questions about how much personal privacy should be sacrificed for the sake of national security.

"That is a false choice," said Alexis Ohanian, internet activist and co-founder of the news and entertainment website Reddit, on Meet the Press.

"It is possible for us to have security while also not overstepping our right to privacy."

Some lawmakers said implementing the president's proposal could prove difficult.

"The attorney general will have a very difficult decision to make," said McCaul, adding it is "hard to say who has the capability to store and use this data".

US President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency in a much-anticipated speech on Friday. Photo: Reuters

Rogers said taking the phone records database out of the government's direct control would bring new privacy concerns, as divorce lawyers and others petition telecommunications firms for access to the information.

"The companies tell us they will be deluged with warrants on these phone records," he said.