Joining top government officials to discuss national security threats to the U.S., Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that terrorists have altered their behavior in the wake of Snowden’s exposure of secret National Security Agency documents. The former NSA contractor leaked classified documents to journalists before fleeing to Russia in June.
“We’re beginning to see changes in the communication behavior of adversaries, particularly terrorists,” Clapper said.
Clapper also said the leaks have had critical effects beyond the NSA, saying that information gathering programs in place at other agencies may be “curtailed or eliminated” in the fallout of negative public reaction to the documents’ revelations about the extent of government surveillance programs.
“The intelligence community is going to have less capacity to protect this nation and our allies than it has had,” he said.
Sen. Angus King, Maine-I asked the intelligence officials how Congress should address section 215 of the Patriot Act in the wake of accusations from outside groups that it has not foiled any terrorist attacks.
Section 215, which expanded the government’s surveillance ability as a means to combat terrorism, came under fire during the Snowden affair because his leaks revealed the NSA used the law to store telephone metadata.
In a national address on Jan. 17, President Barack Obama called for an end to the 215 program as it currently exists and the creation of a “mechanism” that will allow the government to still access bulk metadata but not store it. However, he was vague on what the “mechanism” would be, and senators on the committee felt the president had “tossed it back” to them.
Clapper argued the 215 program was “an important tool” and said the program’s value could not be measured by the number of attacks it thwarted.
“What it does is allow us to eliminate the possibility of a terrorist nexus in a domestic context,” Clapper said. “The use of this 215 tool allowed us to quickly eliminate the possibility of a domestic nexus.”
King continued to pressure the officials to defend the Patriot Act provision, reminding them of the public skepticism surrounding the program.
The negative fallout of the Snowden revelations was evident in the room with protesters clad in pink, holding signs that called for the dismissal of James Clapper. The living “pink slips” were told they would be thrown out by Capitol Police if they disrupted the hearing or blocked anyone’s view with their signs.
Responding to King, FBI director James Comey said the surveillance law is useful because it provides the agency with “agility.”
“It allows us to do in minutes what would otherwise take us in hours,” he said. “In most circumstances the difference between hours and minutes isn’t going to be material -- except when it matters most.”
During a contentious round of questioning by Sen. Ron Wyden, Comey also addressed the government’s authority to track individuals using cell site information technology and smart phone applications. The Oregon Democrat’s question came in the wake of reports that the NSA and British spy agencies are collaborating to swap techniques to gather intelligence from smartphone apps.
Comey said he didn’t believe the FBI needed to show probable cause to access that information.
“In almost all circumstances we have to obtain a court order, but the showing is a reasonable basis to believe it’s relevant to the investigation,” Comey said.
However, the FBI director was unable to clarify if the policy differed when the information was obtained from a smartphone application versus a cell phone tower.
“I don’t really know Senator,” Comey said. “I’d have to ask someone smarter than me.”
In addition to addressing concerns about privacy and national security, the hearing touched on issues of cybersecurity, which Clapper listed at the top of his list of global threats in a report he submitted to the committee. He called for the government to work with the private sector to address potential cyber threats and security issues.
CIA Director John Brennan, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olson also testified at the annual open hearing.