The Obama administration expressed heightened alarm today over fugitive leaker Edward Snowden's stash of secret spy files, as a new batch of highly classified papers spilled across the Internet, revealing how the U.S. government collected online data in bulk.
A top aide to President Obama conceded that the administration doesn't know yet all of what Snowden allegedly swiped while he was a National Security Agency contractor before he slipped to Hong Kong earlier this month and then to Moscow.
"Look, I don't know with certainty what Mr. Snowden has," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in Dakar, Senegal. "That's something that we're actively seeking to determine."
Snowden has already compromised "very classified programs" by leaking them to three newspapers and by taking files overseas, Rhodes said, acknowledging that the government still believes he's carrying the files on his person.
"So we have very strict protocols for how to handle classified information. It doesn't involve getting on a plane and going to Hong Kong and then getting on a plane and going to Russia," Rhodes said.
The intelligence community is conducting both a damage assessment related to the leaks so far and a forensic audit of computers and systems that Snowden had access to, sources told ABC News. But the sources fear Snowden may have hidden his tracks well enough at NSA to make it impossible to determine everything he copied.
Snowden, who worked as an undercover computer specialist with the CIA before contracting with the NSA, is said to be in hiding in the "transit area" of a Moscow airport. Top U.S. officials have urged Russia to expel Snowden, who has been charged with espionage in the U.S., but Russia's President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week that Snowden is a "free person."
During his goodwill trip to Africa, President Obama said today that he had not personally appealed to Putin to send Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice, nor was he prepared to pull out all the stops to collar him.
"No, I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," Obama told reporters on Thursday morning, apparently referring to the chance Snowden could take a flight from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, which would travel over American airspace.
Did Obama Speak Too Soon on NSA File Harm?
While he is still concerned that Snowden could release more classified documents, Obama said he believed the real damage had already been done.
"I get why this is a fascinating issue," Obama said. "But in terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with the first leaks."
But soon after the President spoke, The Guardian newspaper posted more U.S. intelligence files classified at the "SECRET" level and higher, as well as "NOFORN," meaning it was too sensitive to be distributed to foreign allies.
The NSA and Department of Justice documents detailed a decade of collection of email data mostly of foreigners but also U.S. persons, which top prosecutors determined was not constitutionally protected because it was strictly time, date, Internet Protocol addresses – unique to each individual computer -- and email addresses. The actual content of the messages was not collected by NSA under the program codenamed "Stellar Wind," according to The Guardian.