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Spy Chief Says Classified Leaks 'Pose Critical Threat' To U.S.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

In his yearly report (pdf) to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the country's spy chief says one of the top threats facing the United States is the unauthorized leak of classified information.

In his threat assessment report, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, listed "insider threats," alongside cyber attacks and terrorism.

"Trusted insiders with the intent to do harm can exploit their access to compromise vast amounts of sensitive and classified information as part of a personal ideology or at the direction of a foreign government," Clapper writes in the report. "The unauthorized disclosure of this information to state adversaries, nonstate activists, or other entities will continue to pose a critical threat."

Of course, this comes while the DNI is still struggling with the fallout of the massive amount of information disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

As The Los Angeles Times reports, this is the first time the threat assessment gives this much importance to such leaks. The paper adds:

"Over the years, the annual 'worldwide threat' hearings have broadened public understanding of Al Qaeda's growing network, Pakistani support for Taliban fighters, nuclear developments in Iran and North Korea and other sensitive issues.

"Last year, the threat of foreign-based cyberattacks were portrayed for the first time as a more acute danger than international terrorism, and that continues this year, although the growing strength of Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria and Iraq, and parts of North Africa, was noted in the pre-hearing statement.

"'The threat of complex, sophisticated and large-scale attacks from core Al Qaeda against the U.S. Homeland is significantly degraded,' the statement says, although it warns the threat to U.S. facilities overseas has increased."

Meanwhile there are two pieces of news on the NSA front worth noting:

-- In her first speech of her third term, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized United States surveillance. The Guardian reports:

"In a speech otherwise typically short of strong emotion or rhetorical flourishes, the German chancellor found relatively strong words on NSA surveillance, two days before the US secretary of state, John Kerry, is due to visit Berlin.

"'A programme in which the end justifies all means, in which everything that is technically possible is then acted out, violates trust and spreads mistrust,' she said. 'In the end, it produces not more but less security.'"

-- Al Jazeera reports that "two Norwegian lawmakers say they have nominated former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize."

Update at 2:41 p.m. ET. Other Threats:

NPR's Tom Gjelten has been monitoring the hearing on the Hill. One interesting nugget is that Clapper said al-Qaida is becoming a bigger threat to the U.S. That went further than some recent statements from the Obama administration

Tom writes:

The off the cuff remark came as Republican Senator Marco Rubio asked whether al-Qaida is now, 'a bigger and more complex challenge?'

"Actually it is," Clapper said.

Clapper cited the spread of al-Qaida-linked terror groups and the increasing difficulty of gathering intelligence on them.

"The combination of those factors — the geographic dispersal and the increasing challenges in collecting against them — makes Al Qaeda into a very formidable threat," Clapper said.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said al-Qaida's core leadership is on "a path to defeat" though he acknowledged that the terror threat has "evolved" with the appearance of al-Qaida affiliates.

As to the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Counterterrorism chief Matt Olson told the committee that "there is a substantial potential for a terrorist attack."

His organization, Olson said, is "very focused" on those threats.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.