America's Top Spy Sees Silver Lining in the Snowden Leaks

America's top spy says the debate needed to happen.


"As loath as I am to give any credit to what's happened here … some of the debate, probably needed to happen," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said of the Edward Snowden surveillance leaks Thursday.

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"Snowden" has become a dirty word among intelligence professionals, and is usually followed by corrections of, "He's not a whistle blower, he's a leaker." Or worse, "a traitor."

[READ: Declassified Documents Reveal NSA Privacy Violations]

The chief of all U.S. intelligence told an auditorium of national security and cyber professionals on Thursday that the notorious former contractor now at large in Russia is among the "Three S's" of top concern facing the country, to also include Syria and Sequestration.

But, added Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the effects of arguably the worst intelligence breach in U.S. history are not without a silver lining.

"As loath as I am to give any credit to what's happened here, which is egregious, it's clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, probably needed to happen," he said, while speaking Thursday at the first IC Summit organized by the Intelligence National Security Alliance. "It's unfortunate it didn't happen some time ago. If there's a good side to it, then that's it."

"Unfortunately there is more of this to come," he said, adding his concern for the continued effect of Snowden's leaks on the NSA -- his former contract employer -- and other intelligence agencies.

Clapper outlined a problem facing spy agencies in 2013. Roughly 55 percent of all intelligence employees were hired since Sept. 11, 2001, and work for organizations that had to reinvent combatting an adversary that does not claim allegiance to any particular country.

Snowden's admitted actions, and the previous leaks by Pfc. Chelsea Manning before him, leave spies wondering nervously how they can prevent such a breach from happening again.

Clapper suggested reforming how security clearances are issued, and also amalgamating information technology services, which are currently disparate offices spread throughout different agencies.

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Yet intelligence agencies are still determining how to protect their most valuable information without considering everyone under their employment as a suspect.

"We have to continue this path of deterrence," said Dennis Keith, a top intelligence official tasked with preventing what the government calls "Insider Threat," while speaking on a panel at the INSA summit. "We have to continue this path of increasing detection capabilities, and we have to increase this path of having leadership and management involved in the lives of employees."

Spy agencies during the Cold War employed the acronym MICE as the causes of in-house espionage, to include money, ideology, compromise or ego. Leaks in the 21st Century have also been caused by disgruntlement or a divided loyalty.

Office managers should know the access their employees are allowed to have, Keith said, and should be aware of stresses in their lives that could prompt them to steal information for profit or for some other personal gain.

Protecting valuable information also involves hiring the right people, says Stephen Band, the former chief of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit. Cold War-era thinking prompted intelligence agencies to hire hackers, such as Snowden, into positions where they can prevent intrusions by thinking like the enemy.

"It sounds like a good idea, but it doesn't work," he said. "We actually let Snowden into our perimeter."

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Clapper cited a series of documents his office has declassified in recent weeks as an example of the new priorities before agencies like the NSA or CIA.

"We must restore the trust and confidence of the people and their elected representatives," he said. "This is one way to do it."

His office on Tuesday released another round of rulings from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court -- a secretive body tasked with oversight of covert agencies.

Critics and privacy advocates question the benefit of this apparent transparency, pointing to a lag, sometimes over multiple years, for the court to force the NSA to stop questionable practices.