WASHINGTON - The remnants of core al Qaeda's battered leadership may still aspire to launch attacks on the United States, but former NSA contract computer specialist Edward Snowden was portrayed today as Public Enemy No. 1 by the country's top intelligence leaders.
Snowden's admitted theft of hundreds of thousands of highly classified files detailing U.S. intelligence collection programs has caused "profound damage," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a Senate committee hearing dedicated to the gravest threats facing the U.S.
"What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs," Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the public hearing. "As a result, we've lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners."
Discussion of Snowden, introduced by Clapper and prolonged by repeated questions from lawmakers, dominated the two-hour hearing and far overshadowed talk of the threats from al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea and other traditional trouble spots.
The 30-year-old former NSA contractor, currently living under temporary asylum in Russia, has been the source of a steady stream of media reports revealing the NSA's vast domestic and international espionage operations, prompting the White House to reconsider, and at least partially reform, its surveillance policy.
Clapper's remarks came at the top of the annual worldwide threat hearing also featuring ominous testimony from the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center and Defense Intelligence Agency about heightened concerns over such dangers as that posed by sophisticated hackers employed by Russian and Chinese intelligence services to steal sensitive information.
Even amid dire warnings that gains against core-al Qaeda in Pakistan risk being reversed in the new battlefields of Syria, where estimates of foreign fighters alone top 7,000, and after the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan this year, the greatest condemnation was reserved for the 30-year-old professed "whistleblower" who blew the lid on NSA domestic surveillance.
In rhetoric reminiscent of historic FBI manhunts for Prohibition-era Tommy Gun gangsters or Cold War subversives, Snowden was said to put at risk the lives of countless U.S. spies, intelligence assets and troops in harm's way by the assembled U.S. officials.
"What I do want to speak to as the nation's senior intelligence officer is the profound damage that his disclosures have caused and continue to cause. As a consequence, the nation is less safe and its people less secure," Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, somberly explained.
He also called on Snowden to return the documents he stole, a cache which Snowden insisted in an interview with German ARD TV this week that he gave to a few select journalists and no longer possesses.
CIA Director John Brennan said his spies have determined that al Qaeda terrorists "are going to school" with each classified document provided to journalists by Snowden. Brennan said they are aiding al Qaeda with "their counter-intelligence program" because all al Qaeda members have to do is "pick up the papers sometimes or do some Google searches for what has been disclosed and leaked."
The Snowden leaks are "allowing them to burrow in and it's made it much more difficult for us to find them and the threats that they pose," Brennan added.
"This has caused grave damage to our national security," agreed DIA Director Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. "The cost [is] to our nation in treasure, in capabilities that are going to have to be examined, reexamined and potentially adjusted. But I think that potentially the greatest cost is unknown today, but we will likely face, is the cost in human lives in tomorrow's battlefield in someplace where we put our military forces in harm's way."
Flynn was asked by Sens. Susan Collin, R-Maine, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, if American troops could get killed because of Snowden, a computer whiz who once worked for the CIA and NSA contractors Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton.
The general said troops may die because of Snowden, who once worked in support of the military and even briefly enlisted in the Army before being quickly discharged.
"What we've seen the last six to eight months is an awareness by these [terrorist] groups...of our ability to monitor communications and specific instances where they've changed the ways in which they communicate to avoid being surveilled or being subject to our surveillance tactics," said NCTC Director Matthew Olsen.
However, when asked if Snowden's Russian hosts had accessed his unpublished NSA files despite the fugitive contractor's repeated denials, Clapper demurred.
"I think this might be best left to a classified session and I don't want to do any -- say or do anything that would jeopardize a current investigation," the intelligence chief told the Senate panel.
Little testimony about international espionage and terrorist threats was new or surprising, but officials reiterated warnings that the proximity of violent Islamist insurgents a few hundred miles from the Winter Olympic Games opening in Sochi, Russia on February 7 is worrisome.
"We are very focused on the problem of terrorism in the run-up to the Olympics," said Olsen, who recently visited the Sochi venues. He said the major threat for a terror attack is not at the game sites or venues, where Russia is already providing extensive security.
"The greater threat is to softer targets in the greater Sochi area and the outskirts beyond Sochi where there is substantial potential for a terrorist attack," he said.
FBI Director James Comey also insisted that cooperation with the Russian security agencies has been "steadily improving over the last year," even as other officials have said intelligence sharing should be significantly better.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, also expressed her alarm over the gravitational pull of the Syrian civil war for hardened jihadis -- including U.S. persons -- who have flocked there easily to fight the pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al Assad.
Feinstein added that complacency about the al Qaeda threat has set in with the American public following the five-year pounding the group's leadership in Pakistan has sustained including the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden.
"I am concerned that this success has led to a popular misconception that the threat has diminished. It has not," Feinstein said.